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Posted at 01:45 PM ET, 12/29/2011

Dry arctic air on the way: Is your home, nose humidified?


(Photodisc)
It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity...

Washingtonians know all too well the validity of the statement above. Many would agree it’s the stifling humidity that makes a hot summer day oppressive.

Humidity, however, isn’t just a summer concern. It’s also an important factor in the winter. It’s the humidity, or lack there of, that can have a direct impact on our health, often more so than cold air alone.

Dry winter air dries out the nasal passages, making tissues in the nose and throat more vulnerable to attack from viruses. In addition to stuffy noses and sore throats, dry air can also lead to or worsen dry and itchy skin, cracked lips and nosebleeds, and may even boost transmission of the flu. Dry air can also increase static electricity and cause cracks in paint and furniture.

So far this has not only been a mild winter for the D.C. area, but also a relatively humid one compared to usual. But with an Arctic blast threatening the coldest and driest air of the season to date next week, now is as good a time as any to humidify your home.

Before yesterday, Dec. 11 was the only time since Dec. 1 the dew point dipped below 20F at Reagan National Airport, reaching as low as 10F that day. The dew point tells us how much humidity is in the air. Anything below 20F is getting into pretty dry territory (in the summer, dew points near or over 65F are considered uncomfortably humid).

Related Link: Dictating the Superiority of Dew Point

Yesterday’s gusty winds from the west and northwest brought in another brief shot of dry air with dew points down into the teens during the afternoon and last night. Slightly moister air has returned today, with dew points expected back into the 30s tomorrow. But a strong cold front on track to arrive late Sunday is likely to plunge dew points into the teens and possibly single digits for much of next week.

What can you do to prepare and help protect your and your family’s health? Humidify.

“Increasing the humidity in your home helps eliminate the dry air that can irritate and inflame the passages in the nose and throat. Humidified air can relieve the discomfort of colds and the flu. Using a humidifier in the home can help relieve a stuffy nose and can help break up mucus so you can cough it up,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

If you have a whole-home humidifier hooked into your central heating system, you may not need to do much besides checking to see if the humidifier pad or filter needs replacing, especially if you had an HVAC professional perform a pre-winter check-up on your heating system (whole house humidifier maintenance).

If you don’t have a whole-home humidifier (or if you’re like me and have one that doesn’t work as well as it should), then you may want to invest in one or more portable humidifiers to place in specific rooms. Or clean out the ones you already have.

There are two main varieties of portable humidifiers: cool mist and warm mist. NIH recommends cool mist, especially for children, since warm-mist humidifiers can burn your skin if you get too close.

Beware, though, that too much humidity can be as or more harmful than too little. Here’s iallergy.com’s take on ideal humidity levels:

“The optimal humidity level for overall healthy air ranges from between 25% to 55% relative humidity. An inexpensive humidity/temperature gauge (hygrometer) allows you to easily monitor the relative humidity level in your room. While low humidity levels below 25% are unhealthy, you also want to make sure not to have too much moisture in the air. Room air humidity levels higher than 55% can actually encourage the growth of mold, bacteria, fungi and dust mites. You can often tell if you have too much humidity by looking at your windows. Condensation buildup on windows is a telltale sign of too much humidification.”

Or, you can use a hygrometer to measure the humidity in different rooms of your home.

In addition to maintaining a healthy humidity level, regular cleaning of portable humidifiers is also critical to avoid adding unwanted pollutants to the air you and your family breathes. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends:

“Clean portable humidifiers every third day. Empty the tank and use a brush or other scrubber to clean it. Remove any scale, deposits, or film that has formed on the sides of the tank or on interior surfaces, and wipe all surfaces dry. ...be sure you unplug the unit.”

Too much work? “If you’re not up to the grave responsibility of humidifier cleaning, you can also moisturize your nasal passages directly -- just use a saline spray. It will also help thin out the mucus,” says WebMD in its 10 natural ways to ease the common cold .

Related Links

NIH: Humidifiers and Health
EPA: Use and Care of Home Humidifiers
About.com: Choosing the Right Humidifier
MayoClinic: Warm-mist vs. cool-mist humidifier

By  |  01:45 PM ET, 12/29/2011

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