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Ask Dr. Sears: Humidifiers or Vaporizers?

Q. Our pediatrician suggested that we use a cold-air humidifier to help our 1-month-old baby's dry skin and congestion. However, I've read these three articles that recommend using warm-air humidifiers instead. In your opinion, which is best—cold or warm air?

A. I prefer a warm-air vaporizer to a cool-air humidifier for two reasons:

Warm air is cleaner

It's especially important that a newborn breathe clean air. A vaporizer literally vaporizes germs by converting water to steam, which then kills any bacteria present.

Warm, moist air equals easier breathing

Because steam releases heat as it condenses, a vaporizer can act as a bedroom heat source during the cold winter months. This allows you to turn down the central heating in the nursery and thus lessen the negative impact of dry air on your baby's tiny breathing passages. Dry air causes the mucus that lines the breathing passages to thicken and accumulates into globs. Eventually, these globs grow too thick to be coughed up; they get stuck in the airways and result in an infection. That's why my standard prescription for a baby with a cold, especially during the cooler months, is a "steam clean" and "nose hose" combo, which keeps the mucus loose so it can be more easily coughed up. (Squirt an over-the-counter or homemade saltwater solution into your baby's stuffed nasal passages and gently suck it out with a nasal aspirator.)

Most humidifiers produce a cool mist and are therefore less effective than vaporizers. If you're interested in purchasing a humidifier, your best bet would be one of the newer, high-tech ultrasonic models. These use high-frequency sound to break water particles into a mist. Some even produce smaller size vapor particles, allowing for deeper, more effective penetration of the breathing passages. They're used primarily in hospitals for infants who have bronchitis or whose deeper airways are plugged with mucus.

Consider other precautions

Due to the hot steam they produce, vaporizers pose a burn hazard. (This is one reason warm-mist vaporizers fell out of favor for a while.) Be sure to keep yours out of your baby's reach, and instruct toddlers to stay away from it. Also, clean your vaporizer according to the manufacturer's instructions at least once a week. To prevent accumulation of lint and germs, change the water daily and dry the vaporizer between uses.

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