As autumn races by and the weather grows colder, the air inside our homes begins to feel drier and drier. In especially cold weather, the humidity can easily drop as low as 5%. This can dry out the mucus membranes in the nose, sinuses and throat, impairing the body's natural defenses against viruses and causing respiratory distress. In response to such assaults, Americans buy approximately 10 million humidifiers every year. My wife Diane and I have been using ours for several years.

My father was constantly troubled by the humidity. He complained that the house was too damp in the summer and too dry in the winter. Although he was rather frugal, he had no problem buying a very expensive humidifier that attached to our furnace. He was always adjusting it trying to achieve the perfect humidity. He would have appreciated comedian Steven Wright, who once said, “For my birthday I got a humidifier and a de-humidifier. I put them in the same room and let them fight it out.”

When the humidity starts to get below even 30%, static electricity, fly-away hair, dry skin and nosebleeds can be a real problem. Humidifiers offer many people relief for their dry skin, cracked lips, sinus congestion and headaches, dry throat, nose irritations, bloody noses, irritated vocal cords and a dry cough. They even can help prevent pneumonia and the croup.

Low humidity can also harm wooden objects, books, papers and artwork through shrinking, cracking, warping, and producing brittleness. This is why museums invest a great deal in their climate control systems.

If, however, the humidity gets too high, the excess moisture in the air can promote the growth of dust mites, mold and mildew, and can even cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis, which is also known as “humidifier lung.” When it comes to humidity, the Goldilocks principle prevails, neither extreme is comfortable — we are looking for “just right.”

Mary Giles, an editor at Parenting Magazine, says, “The ideal humidity in a home or office is 30 to 50 percent.” Low winter humidity can also result in a significant loss of body heat. Giles says, “Even a thermostat set at 72 degrees may not feel warm enough.”

Humidifiers and vaporizers both moisturize the air. Humidifiers, however, do this by creating mist from cold water, while vaporizers utilize steam. It is very important to follow the cleaning instructions for all humidifiers carefully, since there is some risk that mineral deposits, mold, microbes and other contaminants may find their way into the air. Inhaling these can cause additional breathing problems. This is much less likely to happen with steam vaporizers.

Janice Nolen, from the American Lung Association, says, “If you neglect to clean your humidifier properly, it can quickly become a cozy incubator for germs — one that aerosolizes those microorganisms and mists them into the air you breathe.” Using distilled or purified water is another method that helps prevent such problems. Although vaporizers offer less risk from contaminates, they present a greater risk for burns from the steam or hot water and thus they are often not recommended for households with young children.

Oddly enough, a vaporizer was a recurrent feature in a popular television series in the 1960s. In The Addams Family sitcom, Gomez Addams, the patriarch of the spooky family, is frequently shown with a towel over his head, breathing in the steam from his vaporizer. He is portrayed as being anxious about the state of his “collapsing bronchial tubes.” In one episode, it was revealed that before he married Morticia, Gomez remained isolated at home with his vaporizer for 22 years. Grandmama Addams finally tells him that he needs to find a girlfriend since he can’t marry a vaporizer.

With vaporizers people also can utilize aromatic inhalants, such as the traditional Vicks VapoRub. Back in the 1890s Lunsford Richardson, a North Carolina pharmacist, created the “Vicks” brand for a number of home remedies. His most successful product was a mentholated salve, which evolved to become Vicks VapoRub. VapoRub is basically petroleum jelly with menthol, eucalyptus and camphor added. When the U.S. was ravaged by the Spanish flu in 1918, Vicks VapoRub sales more than tripled in just one year. It was first used primarily as a chest rub, but then gained popularity as an inhalant.

So while my father loved his humidifiers, my mother swore by Vicks and vaporizers. Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, says, “I had chest congestion a lot as a kid, and there was nothing quite so comforting as to have my mom or my dad rub my chest down at bedtime with [Vicks], then tell me to put on a white T-shirt. ….One had to wear the T-shirt to keep cold air from rushing into the chest cavity.” I had similar experiences, but I never found it comforting at all. I hated the aroma and the greasy mess that was burning my chest. My mother also was prone to cramming some Vicks up my nose, when she thought I needed it. I think she liked it because she smoked menthol cigarettes and believed that they were somehow more “medicinal” than regular cigarettes.

All things considered, I guess I prefer our humidifier to Vicks being administered through a vaporizer or being shoved up my nose.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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