Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, MD
Humidifiers and vaporizers add water vapor to the air. They make the air moist and combat dryness, making them a useful home remedy for many conditions that can cause a dry nose, skin dryness, or congestion.
People use humidifiers and vaporizers for conditions such as colds, bronchitis and allergies, and to use in baby nurseries. There are slight differences between humidifiers and vaporizers, which means they have different benefits for different uses.
In this article, we look at which is best for various uses, and other considerations, including cost and safety.
What is the difference?
A humidifier may reduce the discomfort of a dry throat or nose.
Humidifiers and vaporizers add humidity to the air in different ways:
- A vaporizer heats water and adds steam to the air. It has internal heating technology that boils the water before releasing it into the air as steam, creating a warm mist.
- A humidifier releases an ultra-fine cool mist into the air. Some cool-mist humidifiers come with ultrasonic technology, and others use an internal wick filter and fan.
When deciding between a humidifier or a vaporizer, it is helpful to determine the purpose. Both devices may reduce discomfort, such as a dry throat or nose, along with skin dryness. The devices may also decrease nasal congestion and make breathing easier.
To determine which device is best for them, a person needs to understand how humidifiers and vaporizers work and which conditions they can benefit:
Congestion is one of the most common allergy symptoms. Both humidifiers and vaporizers add moisture to the air. Breathing in moist air may reduce nasal stuffiness and relieve irritated sinuses.
However, people with allergies should be careful when using either device.
If the humidity level is too high, it can promote dust mites and mold growth, which are common allergy triggers. A low humidity level can also cause adverse effects. A person can measure the humidity of a room with a hygrometer.
One 2016 study looked at the effects of classroom humidity levels on asthma symptoms in 122 teachers.
The researchers found that people experienced a moderate but non-significant increase in asthma-like symptoms when the humidity level was higher than 50% or less than 30%. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAI), humidity levels should be between 40–50%.
People who use a humidifier must clean it daily and use distilled or demineralized water to minimize dust mite, mold, and bacteria growth.
The AAAI recommend that people with indoor allergies speak with their doctor to determine if a humidifier is helpful for their specific allergies.
A vaporizer is a better option for people that have indoor allergens because the device heats water to create a mist that usually has fewer contaminants than a humidifier.
Similarly to a person with allergies, a person with asthma must be careful with the use of a humidifier or vaporizer. Asthma involves hypersensitivity of the airways, which leads to airway constriction.
Using humidification may irritate the airways further. Improper use can lead to mold, dust mite, or bacteria growth that can trigger asthma symptoms.
Before using any type of humidifier with asthma, it is best to talk with a healthcare provider.
The Asthma Society of Canada do not recommend the use of either of these devices to treat asthma.
Bronchitis involves inflammation in the bronchial tubes that lead to the lungs. Symptoms include coughing and increased mucus. Increasing the humidity in the air can help ease coughing associated with bronchitis. Humidifiers and vaporizers add moisture to the air in the same way.
Cold and flu
Cold and flu symptoms often include a sore throat and nasal congestion. Both vaporizers and humidifiers may help ease throat irritation and congestion by adding moisture to the air.
Dry air with cold temperatures may promote the transmission of viruses, making an infection more likely. Adding moisture to the air may, therefore, help protect against infections.
When it comes to using a humidifier or a vaporizer for relieving the symptoms of a cold, it comes down to personal preference. However, a vaporizer has the added benefit of allowing the user to add medications for inhalation to ease nasal and chest congestion.
Adding moisture to the air may ease a congested nose, and can be especially helpful for babies and young children that cannot blow their nose.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), human parainfluenza viruses are a common cause of respiratory infections, such as croup and bronchiolitis, in children. Both illnesses cause nasal stuffiness and coughing, which humidification may reduce.
When choosing between a humidifier and a vaporizer, it is essential to consider what is appropriate for specific age ranges. For instance, a vaporizer is not a good option to use around children. Since vaporizers boil the water, it could lead to a burn if knocked over. A cool-mist humidifier that does not have the potential to cause a burn is a better choice for children.
When it comes to choosing humidifiers or vaporizers, it is also important to also consider the following factors:
The cost of humidifiers and vaporizers varies depending on the manufacturer and the size of the unit. In general, humidifiers are more expensive. When choosing, measure the size of the room and determine the best size of humidifier or vaporizer to buy.
The cleaning processes for humidifiers and vaporizers are similar. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions. Cleaning recommendations often include using white vinegar and rinsing and drying all parts. Vaporizers may leave mineral deposits behind due to the boiling process, which can make cleaning a little more difficult.
Whether a person chooses a humidifier or vaporizer, it is vital to make sure they clean the device properly. When not cleaned well, it can cause a buildup of mold or bacteria, which may lead to illness.
People should clean both types of device daily. Also, they should empty any remaining water and refill with fresh water every day. When using a cool-mist humidifier, consider using purified water, as this may have fewer contaminants than tap water.
Although adding moisture to the air may ease discomfort associated with dryness, too much humidity may also lead to problems. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the ideal humidity level in the home is best kept between 30% and 50%. Ideally, a person can use a hygrometer to measure the level of humidity in the room.
Both humidifiers and vaporizers add humidity to the air. Vaporizers heat the water and add steam to the air. Cool-mist humidifiers add a cool fine vapor. Both devices can help relieve skin and nasal dryness.
Adding moisture to the air, whether using a cool or warm mist, may also help ease symptoms such as nasal and chest congestion, along with coughing. The choice may come down to budget, the age of the user, and personal preference.