Can a Humidifier Make a Cough Worse?

There isn’t anything much worse than suffering from a nasty cough.  No matter what season, a cough can sideline you and sap your energy faster than any other cold symptom.  Coughing causes you to use your entire body to attempt to expel mucous that has collected in your chest cavity, but this forcefulness can cause you to tire quickly.  


If you are suffering from a dry cough, the coughing exhaustion and discomfort can be even worse, as your cough will not be productive and effective in helping you clear your chest.  The entire experience is completely exhausting.  


Coughs also tend to be worse at night. This is because when you lie flat on your back, mucous can pool in the back of your throat, causing your cough reflex to feel like it is constantly being triggered.  If you are also experiencing a post-nasal drip, this effect can be even worse.  


Coughs can be brought on by colds, flu, or allergies.  Some people suffer coughs due to lifestyle choices, like smoking.  Regardless of the reason for your cough, if you are suffering, you just want to feel better, fast, and you’ll do practically anything to get relief.  


Essentially, your body is coughing because there is an infection or buildup of mucus in your chest.  Your body’s natural response is to remove it, and that is done through coughing.  


Coughing is your body’s way of healing and ridding you of infection, so remedies that cause you to stop coughing aren’t necessarily good solutions.  Remedies, like expectorants, that cause you to cough more efficiently, are more preferable. But what about humidifiers?


What Remedies Are Available for Coughs?


Because coughing is such an annoying and maddening existence, there is no shortage of remedies available to help you rid yourself of coughing altogether. Unfortunately, many of us are in search of more natural and holistic ways to treat ourselves when we are sick or suffering.  Some of the side effects of over-the-counter cough medications can be unpleasant, and some remedies seem like they just don’t work.  


Here are some of the most popular cough remedies.


  • Humidifiers.  Humidifiers work by releasing water vapor into the air to keep the air moist.  When the air in your home is properly humidified (45% humid), you are able to breathe easier and avoid dehydrated skin and mucous membranes in your nose.   Using a humidifier can help ease cough discomfort by adding needed moisture to the air so your throat and esophagus don’t feel dry and scratchy, which can exacerbate your cough.
  • Cough suppressants.  Cough suppressants are medications that work by suppressing your body’s cough reflex.  Your body has this reflex for a reason, so suppression of this reflex is not necessarily doing you any good.  Using a cough suppressant can sometimes make your cough worse in the long run, because it can cause your illness to last longer.  
  • Cough expectorants.  Expectorants work by helping thin the mucus in your chest, allowing it to break up and be released easier from your chest via coughing.  This can help especially if you have a cough that is not productive or “dry.”
  • Cough lozenges.  Cough lozenges or drops work by suppressing the body’s cough reflex by using analgesics like menthol.  These are a better option for cough relief over a cough suppressant medication because this suppression is temporary.  Using lozenges can give you relief without completely eliminating your body’s ability to cough.  
  • Chest rubs/creams.  Popular for use with children are vapor rubs and creams.  These work along the same lines as a suppressant, in that the menthol in the vapors can trick your brain into thinking that you are breathing better and without as much effort, which can disallow your cough reflex from being triggered.  


Can a Humidifier Make a Cough Worse?


If you’ve decided to use a humidifier as an all-natural remedy for you or your child’s cough, you’ve made a great decision.  Humidifiers are great resources for helping keep a cough productive and also keeping it in check overnight so that you can get some rest.  While you may have heard that a humidifier can make a cough worse, this refers to warmed, steam-release humidity, and hasn’t properly been researched thoroughly.   


One of the main reasons warm steam humidifiers are usually not indicated for the relief of cough symptoms (or any kind of symptoms) is because the symptomatic individual is often a child.  Warm steam humidifiers are generally unsafe for children and babies as they can cause steam burns.  Therefore, they should never be used in a nursery or small child’s bedroom setting.  


Instead, you can opt for a cool mist humidifier.  These humidifiers do not heat the air or water before it passes out of the humidifier.  As such, there is no risk of burn.  Additionally, cool mist humidity is better for chests that are congested and inflamed, as they have a more soothing, cooling relief effect that can help you or your child get relief faster and feel better sooner.


How Should I Use a Humidifier For a Cough?


You can use a humidifier to help ease your cough by running it in the same room you are in.  


While you may choose to run the humidifier all day, many people find they most need the relief a humidifier can bring overnight while they sleep.  Especially for young children, the time they tend to cough and be the most upset is at night time.  If the kids aren’t sleeping, no one is sleeping, so it’s important to take every measure possible to ensure a good night of sleep is had by all.  Proper use of a humidifier involves:

  • Placing the humidifier in the room where the coughing person will be spending the majority of their time.  It’s important the humidifier stays near the person who is having cough symptoms; a distance of three feet is the perfect distance from the affected individual.
  • Cleaning the humidifier periodically.  You’ll want to make sure your humidifier is in proper working order and properly cleaned before use, especially if it has been some time since you have used it.  Humidifiers can obtain a build-up from hard water, and if it is not cleaned, this material can be dispersed into the air.  
  • Placing the humidifier in a safe location.  Even though non-steam humidifiers are relatively safe for children and kids, you still want to avoid a water-spill accident if at all possible.  As such, it’s important to place the humidifier on a shelf or table that is not within the reach of a child.  
  • Adjusting the cool mist intensity.  Depending on the severity of the suffering person’s cough, you can adjust the cool mist intensity from low to high.  If the cough is mild, the low setting may be adequate for keeping the person comfortable.  If the cough is more severe, a higher intensity level may be a better option.  
  • Using aromatherapy, if available.  Some humidifiers have aromatherapy components which allow you to disperse essential oils along with the cool mist vapors.  This can provide a double layer of relief for people suffering with a cough.  A simple Google search can tell you what oils are recommended for soothing a bad cough.

What to Look for in a Humidifier?


If you don’t own a humidifier, you’re in luck; they’re available almost everywhere, but there are some definite specifics you’ll want to look for to ensure you get a great quality humidifier that is durable and most effective with helping coughs.

  • Ultrasonic technology.  The safest, most efficient humidifiers on the market are ultrasonic humidifiers.  These humidifiers work by using ultrasonic vibration to propel water from the reservoir tank into the air.  
  • ETL safety certifications.  This is the gold standard in household appliance safety certification.  This seal of approval can help you know you’re getting the safest product possible.
  • Aromatherapy option.  As previously mentioned, it’s a great option to find a humidifier that can also hold essential oil in a separate tray.  This can allow you to enhance your level of relief or relaxation with the use of different oils. 
  • Large water tank.  Look for a six liter tank or larger, which should allow you to use your humidifier for at least fifty hours before it needs refilling.  This ensures you aren’t constantly having to refill the tank in the middle of the day or night.  
  • Filterless systems.  Filter systems require filter changes monthly.  This adds significantly to the cost of your humidifier and can also be annoying; changing the filter is probably not something you are likely to remember!

Summary


Using a humidifier is a great way to alleviate a nasty cough.  Humidifiers don’t make coughs worse; they work to help a person experience relief by keeping the air moisturized.  Humid air is helpful in breaking mucus down in the chest and helping it to be released, which makes a cough more productive.  


Humidifiers can bring comfort at night, when coughs can be especially troublesome, so that you can get some sleep and the rest you need to get well


Sources:

https://www.healthline.com/health/cough#

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319498#

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16855975/

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