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humidifiers and health

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Lungs and bronchial tree

Humidifiers are machines that put tiny droplets of water vapor into the air.

What is the information for this topic? 
When humidified air is breathed in, the water vapor adds moisture to secretions in the upper airway. This makes the secretions more fluid so it may be easier to cough them up. Humidifiers work only for the upper airway. The term upper airway refers to the nose, the mouth, and the throat above the vocal cords. Water vapor droplets made by a humidifier do not usually reach the lower airways, which include the trachea, or windpipe, and the lungs.

In the past, steam humidifiers were commonly used. These humidifiers were a danger to children because the humidifier heated water, and many children were accidentally burned by them. Newer humidifiers, also known as vaporisers, use special energy waves to break water down into a vapor. This results in smaller droplets than were possible with steam humidifiers. The vapor is not heated, so it is much safer. The energy waves also kill any bacteria or mould that may be in the water or the machine.

Moisturising the air may help when the surfaces of the airway are dry. Respiratory illnesses, such as colds and flu, often cause faster and deeper breathing and dry out the airway surfaces. Moist air also seems to soothe irritated, inflamed airways.

For a child with a cold and thick nasal secretions, a humidifier can help thin out the secretions and make breathing easier. For a child with croup, a viral infection of the vocal cords and upper trachea, a humidifier may relieve some of the airway irritation. This can reduce the stridor, a type of harsh breathing noise, and coughing that go along with croup.

The air in modern houses in the wintertime is very dry. Heating the air to keep it warm tends to reduce its humidity or moisture level. This can be a problem for children who have dry skin. Running a humidifier in the house, especially in the child's room, can help relieve some of the dryness.

A special type of humidifier called a nebuliser can be used to deliver medication to the airway. Nebulisers are often used to treat asthma. They generate smaller water vapor droplets that are able to reach the small airways in the lungs. Certain medications, such as salbutamol, can be dissolved in water and given with a nebuliser. The medications are then able to reach the lungs in greater concentration than if taken by mouth. A new approach is to give some antibiotics by nebuliser. It seems to work very well on lower airway infections in children with cystic fibrosis, a serious inherited condition that damages the lungs.

Author: John Wegmann, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 20/09/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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