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Humidifiers and Vaporizers

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2022.

What are humidifiers and vaporizers?

Humidifiers (hu-MID-i-fi-ers) and vaporizers (VA-por-i-zers) are devices that add moisture to the air. A humidifier makes the air moist with a cool mist. A vaporizer uses a hot mist to put moisture in the air.

Why would I use a humidifier or vaporizer?

A humidifier or a vaporizer may help your dry nose, throat, lips, and skin. These devices may also make it easier for you to breathe. Your caregiver may want you to use a humidifier or vaporizer to help loosen the mucus in your throat or chest. You may use one in the winter to decrease the static electricity in your home.

What kind of humidifier or vaporizer should I use?

There are many kinds of humidifiers and vaporizers. Your caregiver will help you choose the one that is best for you. Humidifiers and vaporizers come in different sizes. They may be portable, or the size of a small cabinet. Humidifiers can even be attached to your air conditioner or furnace. Humidifiers and vaporizers are often small enough to be used at the bedside.

  • Cool mist humidifier: This is an electric device with a container to hold the water. Some cool mist humidifiers (called impellers) use a rotating disk that spins at high speed. This creates a moist mist and sends it into the room. Some cool mist humidifiers use a fan that blows air through a moist material. Ultrasonic humidifiers create a cool mist by using sound vibrations.
  • Steam vaporizer: This creates moisture in the air by heating the water into a hot mist. A steam vaporizer needs to be at about 4 feet (122 cm) away from you. Children should be kept away from a steam vaporizer because the hot mist could burn them.
  • Warm mist humidifier: This is a type of steam vaporizer that cools the moist steam before it is released into the room.
  • Oxygen (diffusion head) humidifier: This type of humidifier is usually used for people who are getting oxygen. This type of humidifier uses a plastic (or glass) bottle to store clean water. The humidifier attaches to the oxygen tank, and oxygen bubbles through the water in the bottle. The oxygen tubing that leads to your nasal cannula or mask is also attached to the humidifier. Using this type of humidifier may help to keep your nose from getting dry.

How are humidifiers and vaporizers used?

Always follow the manufacturer's instructions when using your vaporizer or humidifier. The following are some general tips to help you use these devices.

  • Bedside humidifiers or vaporizers:
    • Fill the container to the line with distilled water. Tap water may contain minerals that could damage the equipment or create a white dust in your home. Distilled water may be bought at most grocery or drug stores.
    • Put the humidifier on a flat surface, such as a table, about 4 feet (122 cm) from you. Protect this surface from water damage by placing towels or a waterproof mat underneath it.
    • Check the electrical cord. Do not use the device if the cord is damaged.
    • Place the unit so that it does not get the bed, curtains, carpeting, or other materials wet.
  • Oxygen (diffusion head) humidifier:
    • Your caregiver or oxygen supply company will show you how to correctly attach the humidifier and tubing. Follow the cleaning directions that come with the bottle. If you do not have directions, use soap and warm water to clean the bottle. Make sure you rinse well.
    • Empty and refill the humidifier bottle with fresh water at least once a day. Always clean the bottle before you refill it. You may use tap water for cleaning, but use sterile or distilled water when refilling the bottle. A pre-filled bottle can also be used. Do not use tap water to fill the bottle. There are minerals and other things in tap water that could damage your equipment. Hook the humidifier to your oxygen tank. Attach the tubing of your nasal cannula or mask to the humidifier.
    • Check the water level throughout the day. If the level is low, wash the bottle and refill the water.

Cleaning your humidifier or vaporizer:

Water that stands still for a period of time allows germs and mold to grow. It is important to clean your humidifier or vaporizer to prevent this. Always follow the directions that came with the device to clean and maintain your humidifier or vaporizer. The following are some general tips for keeping your device clean:

  • Change the water in the device every day.
  • Clean the device at least every three days. Use a soft brush or clean cloth to scrub the inside of the water tank. If cleaning directions were not included, you can use three percent hydrogen peroxide to clean the humidifier or vaporizer. If you use soap or another cleaning or germ-killing product, be sure to rinse the device thoroughly. You can use tap water when cleaning and rinsing the device.
  • Use distilled water when filling your humidifier or vaporizer. This will keep mineral deposits from building on the parts of the device. It will also keep minerals from being spread in the air.

Other safety tips:

  • Keep steam vaporizers out of the reach of children. The hot water in the tank or the steam may cause burns.
  • Do not use the humidifier so much that the air in the room becomes overly moist. This may allow mold and germs to grow in your home. If you notice water beading up on windows, walls, or damp floors, move the device or do not use it as much.
  • Make sure all parts of the device are clean and dry before you store the unit.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.