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Cold Versus Warm Humidifiers

Pediatrics Expert Advice from Henry Bernstein, M.D.

Q: I have a newborn. Everyone in my family has advised me to buy a humidifier. I went to the store to check the humidifiers. What I found is that there are two kinds of humidifiers: one is cold mist and the other is warm mist. I have been searching the Net to find the difference and had no luck. I questioned the relatives and they have no clue. No one in the store was able to help. The only thing my family has been able to say is get a humidifier to moisten the dry air in the home and help the baby. What are the differences between them? Do I really need one? Help! Lost soul.

A: You hardly sound like a "lost soul." In fact, you are asking very appropriate questions in response to your family's advice. I generally do recommend that families have a humidifier in their home. Small babies' nasal passages seem to be congested more easily, particularly since these passages are relatively small in comparison with older infants and children. Just a small amount of mucus can clog them. Remember, during the winter when the heat is on indoors, the circulating air is very dry. Since it is recommended to avoid using any kind of decongestants or other over-the-counter medications in children under 6-12 months of age, humidifiers may help by adding moisture to the air. This helps improve the flow of air through the nasal passages and makes it easier for infants to breathe.

I do not have a preference between a warm or a cool mist humidifier since both accomplish the same thing--getting moisture into the air. However, the warm mist type can generate warm steam that may cause any wallpaper in the baby's room to become unglued while the cool mist variety may make the air in the room much more cooler than usual. In my opinion, there is no real need to get too fancy by buying an ultrasonic type that makes smaller droplets of moisture. It is much more important to keep whichever humidifier you use clean, so that you are not spreading germs.

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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.


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