Q. When and why should a parent use a humidifier or vaporizer in a child's bedroom?
A. Humidifiers -- which create a cool mist -- and vaporizers -- which heat water until it turns into steam -- are both used to put moisture into air. They are typically used during winter, when home heat can dry or crack nasal passages, lips and skin.
Pediatricians may recommend use when a baby or child is suffering from cold symptoms to loosen congestion or nightly use to help prevent illnesses, nosebleeds and more. "Certainly, when you have a cold, it helps with symptoms," says Dr. Jill Creighton, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Stony Brook Children's Hospital.
But the devices can cause problems if used incorrectly -- especially if they aren't cleaned properly and regularly, because they can send bacteria, germs and mold into the air.
"Follow manufacturers' instructions," says Dr. Susan Schuval, chief of allergy and immunology at Stony Brook Children's Hospital.
For children with asthma or allergies, parents need to be especially vigilant about the amount of added humidity, because too much can increase dust mites in the room, Schuval says.
Some doctors recommend using distilled water in the devices. Some also prefer vaporizers because, in heating the water to create steam, germs are killed. However, steam can burn children if they get too close, so be sure to keep vaporizers out of reach.