Humidifer vs Vaporizer, Which Is Better For Nightime Congestion?

Which is better to use for nighttime congestion -- a humidifier or vaporizer? Cold air or warm air? Steam? My child is three years old.

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Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

You ask an excellent question which has a relatively simple answer. Cool-mist humidifiers and steam vaporizers are equally effective in humidifying the air and supplying the symptomatic relief humidified air can give to the child who has significant nasal congestion. However, there are certain drawbacks to each of these methods which need to be considered before investing in any particular humidifier.

Cool-Mist Humidifier

These machines work by making water vapor through a rapidly turning disk within the water of the humidifier. Because the vapor from the machine is not heated, there is no risk of burning the child should the water spill or she places her face close to where the vapor escapes. The biggest drawback to cool-mist humidifiers is that the cool water can be an excellent breeding ground for mold and bacteria. Therefore, it is very important (and somewhat bothersome) to follow the manufacturer's instructions concerning cleaning which usually includes cleansing the tank on a daily basis with soap and water. In addition, these machines are quite efficient at dispersing the minerals within tap water which can cause health problems themselves. So, distilled water should be used in cool-mist humidifiers. 

Steam Vaporizer

These devices are less likely to have a lot of mold and bacterial growth, but the risk of burn can be significant. Vapor is made in these machines by using a heating element to cause steam. This method does not cause minerals to be dispersed in the air. So, tap water can often be used with these devices making them much less expensive to operate. However, because of the very high temperature of the water, these should not be used for younger children.

Ultrasonic Humidifiers

These machines cause vapor by creating ultrasonic vibrations within the water. These were originally thought to be better because it was felt the risk of dispersing bacteria, molds, and minerals was minimal. However, this has not always been found to be the case. The safety of these devices is certainly better than the steam vaporizers, and they do tend to disperse much less bacteria and mold than the cool-mist humidifiers. However, they are quite efficient at sending minerals into the air, so distilled water must be used with these as well.

With the burn risk to your younger child, I would absolutely steer clear of the steam humidifiers. And your decision about whether to purchase an ultrasonic or regular cool-mist humidifier ought to be based on cost and how difficult cleaning is going to be since they will need this maintenance daily. Finally, a word of caution about humidifiers in general. While these appliances can often give nice relief to a child who is stopped up from a cold, the humidity in the air can allow for mold growth within the carpeting or other areas of the house. For children with asthma, this increased exposure to mold can often actually make matters worse. So, if your child has asthma or other chronic respiratory difficulties, I would consult your pediatrician before spending the money on a humidifier.

I hope this helps.

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