Winter brings the stuffy combination of cold season and months of dry air when the heat goes on.
If you're struggling with a dry cough, or reaching for the tissue box to try — in vain — to blow your nose so you can breathe, it's time to consider a humidifier.
By putting moisture back into a dry environment, the machines can bring relief to victims of the dreaded winter cold. Humidifiers can help ease dryness in the lining of the nose, the bronchial tubes and the lungs, said Jim King, a family physician in Selmer, Tenn.
"The water evaporates into the air, and then you can breathe it into the nasal passages and it keeps everything moist so it's easier to clear and breathe," said King, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "If you have a lot of congestion and you're stopped up and can't clear the secretions, it will be a benefit."
Humidifiers are also touted as a way to help with scratchy throats, chapped lips, dry skin, and congestion from sinus problems, allergies and asthma as well as household problems such as static electricity, peeling wallpaper and cracks in paint and wood furniture due to low humidity.
King says anyone can use a humidifier, but he mostly recommends one for children, who have small nasal passages, and can't always blow their noses by themselves.
Lisa Schroeder, a mother of two from Mamaroneck, N.Y., said a humidifier worked well for her 4-year-old son, John, when he was younger. She planned to buy one for her daughter, Mary, who turns 1 in February.
"It's so dry all winter long," Schroeder said. "It's good for the nasal passages and to keep them free of stuffiness so they can breathe easier through the night."
Just remember, humidifiers must be cleaned regularly to keep them clear of bacteria that can make you sick. And a humidifier isn't a wonder cure.
"You're not curing anything," King says. "You're trying to treat the symptoms and make them more comfortable."
The main difference among machines is how the water in the humidifier is turned into moisture in the air.
Among the most common types is an evaporative humidifier, which has a fan that blows air over a wet wick and puts moisture in the air. Another option is an ultrasonic humidifier, which uses ultrasound vibrations that turns water into a cool mist.
In a warm-mist humidifier, a heating unit boils water before cooling the steam in a warm air stream. Some of these have a medicine cup in which special products to help with cold symptoms can be added.
It's mostly a matter of personal preference on whether you prefer warm or cool moisture, but cool-mist humidifiers are most often recommended for children because of a risk of accidental scalding from the hot water.
King recommends that the humidifier be aimed away from cold sufferers, so they don't feel cold and damp, and that it be cleaned regularly, so bacteria and mold do not grow and get put into the air and make you sicker than you already are.
Since the fall, when cold medicines for children under 2 were pulled off the market amid safety concerns, cool-mist humidifiers have been recommended anew as a non-medicinal way to relieve symptoms.
One fun choice for kids' rooms is a humidifier from Crane USA. Since 2005, the company has been making cool-mist ultrasonic humidifiers in the shape of animals, including a frog and penguin, and several characters known to children everywhere: SpongeBob SquarePants, Thomas the Tank Engine and the oh-so-pretty Hello Kitty.
"These are familiar characters, so if you do have a child that's sick, it's just a nice familiar character in the room," says Katie Sotor, a spokeswoman for Crane.
A warm-mist humidifier that came out in the fall aimed at parents is the Vicks Germ Free Humidifier, which uses UV light that is said to kill virtually all bacteria and mold. The humidifier also has a locking system the company says will prevent children from reaching the water tank and is designed not to spill if it is knocked over.
On the Net:
Crane humidifiers: http:crane-usa.com/
Vicks humidifiers: www.vicks.com/humidifiers-info.php
American Academy of Family Physicians: www.aafp.org/online/en/home.html