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The Informed Parent

Low Humidity and Respiratory Difficulties

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Apr. 23, 2004

With the furnace season approaching rapidly, the time of year when dry air and children’s respiratory conditions is not far away.

While spending two years as an Air Force pediatrician in Minot, North Dakota, I became very aware of the role that low humidity plays in causing respiratory symptoms. In extremely cold climates, heating the air to a liveable temperature essentially removes all its moisture. This causes the lining membrane of the nose, throat, trachea, and lungs to become irritated. This in turn provokes sore throats, super-dry noses, and morning coughs. In frigid climates, furnaces have humidifying systems to prevent these problems. Unfortunately, heating air from -20 degrees to 65 degrees exceeds the ability of most of the units.

In milder climate areas home furnaces and heaters do not come so equipped because of our mild winter climate. Even though our winter temperatures are not severe, we use our furnaces to keep the air comfortable.

When they are used overnight, the humidity falls and the respiratory tissue reacts as though it were in North Dakota. Nasal secretions become thick and tacky. They do not flow. The nose becomes plugged with this thick mucus, leaving an infant very unhappy.

Since a little baby preferentially breathes through the nose, it will struggle to do so, even though the passage is partially occluded. This interferes with the baby’s sleep and nursing. It is very hard to drink and breathe through one’s mouth at the same time.

After a few nights of breathing heated air, the infant awakens with a very stuffy nose and mucus that appears cloudy. The secretions are so thick that a nasal bulb syringe is of no help. As the day progresses, the baby seems to clear, only to have things get worse again at night. If this continues for a long enough time, a secondary infection will start in the plugged passages.

Parents can prevent the problem. If you must run your heater or furnace at night, keep the thermostat low (65 degrees) and run a humidifier in the child’s room, the goal being to try to keep the humidity in the baby’s room above 40 percent. Dress the baby as warmly as you want, but let it breathe cool, moist air.

In the Air Force, environmental engineers pointed out to me that condensation will form on the outside of a glass containing ice and water if the humidity is above 40 percent. Using this, you can be sure the humidity is above 40 percent without buying an expensive instrument. If the glass stays dry the humidity is too low.

If a secondary infection has not set in, these simple measures can clear a very plugged nose. Other family members also benefit because their morning sore throats or raspy coughs disappear as the humidity is maintained through the night.

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