When there’s too much or too little moisture in the air, it can impact your health in more ways than you think. Below, we’ve listed the top six health symptoms associated with humidity — and what to do to get relief.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, too much moisture in the air can actually interfere with your body’s natural cooling mechanisms and leave you dehydrated.
When the relative humidity of the air is high, it makes the air temperature feel much hotter than it is. Your thermometer may read 88° F on a hot summer day, but if the relative humidity is 75 percent, it will feel like a sizzling 103° F. And when it feels like 103° F, your body is working on overdrive to cool you down and maintain an ideal body temperature of around 98.6° F. When temperatures are high to begin with, a slight increase in humidity can have a profound impact on how overheated you feel.
Data sourced from the National Weather Service (NWS) Heat Index
Your body’s main cooling mechanism is sweat. When sweat evaporates off of the skin, it reduces your core body temperature and in doing so, brings a feeling of relief. When the relative humidity of the air is high, sweat doesn't evaporate — but that doesn’t stop your body from producing it. Eventually, this severe loss of water, salt, and minerals can leave you overheated and struggling to maintain normal body functions. Muscle cramps, headaches, light-headedness, dizziness, increased heart rate, and fatigue are all early signs of heat exhaustion.
On the other end of the spectrum, extremely low humidity can also cause dehydration. This is usually a bigger problem during the winter and fall or in desert climates, where outdoor humidity levels can dip as low as 20 percent (an ideal humidity range is between 40 and 50 percent). To make matters worse, the dry heat produced by most home heating systems can consume what little moisture is left in your indoor air.
When outdoor humidity is high, make sure to drink lots of water, even before you feel thirsty. This will help replenish your body of essential minerals and combat overheating due to dehydration. The same rule is true for low humidity situations, where dehydration may be less apparent. If conditions persist, you may need to invest in a dehumidifier or humidifier for your home to help bring indoor conditions back to a healthy level.
2. Chronic Skin and Throat Irritation
When humidity levels are extremely low, you lose more water vapor through respiration and the pores in your skin. This can cause chronic dry skin, chapped lips, a scratchy throat, and an itchy nose. As you rub your nose or swallow repeatedly to rid yourself of this feeling, you actually cause more irritation and inflammation to these delicate passageways.
When humidity levels are low, it’s exceptionally important to take care of your skin. Although taking long, hot showers may feel like the ultimate cold weather indulgence, be wary of using too much soap or staying in the shower for too long. Excessive exposure to hot water and chemicals found in soap can rob your skin of natural oils and leave you dried out. To trap-in moisture, apply an oil or cream moisturizer after showering and after washing your hands throughout the day.
3. Increased Vulnerability to Infection
The mucus membranes in your nose and throat are your body’s first defense against airborne pathogens. When they’re healthy, they trap viruses that cause infection before they can travel deeper into your body and enter into your bloodstream.
When these membranes are dried out due to low humidity, they’re not effective at filtering pathogens. To make matters worse, when your nose and lips are split and irritated, the capillaries are more exposed, making it easier for microbes to pass directly into your bloodstream. In addition, some scientists think that pathogens linger in the air longer during winter because they lose excess water vapor — and become lighter in the process. Studies have shown that the flu is much more common in winter because cold temperatures and low humidity make it easier for individuals to contract and spread the virus to others.
Luckily, we spend more time indoors during the winter, and it’s much easier to control indoor air conditions than it is to influence the weather. If outdoor humidity levels are low, use a humidifier in your bedroom and main living area to help bring humidity to a healthy level and get some symptom relief. Fill your humidifier with distilled water (as opposed to bottled water or tap water) to avoid introducing chemicals and fine dust into your home.
4. Inflamed Dermatitis, Eczema, and Asthma
Eczema and other forms of dermatitis are often exacerbated by changes in temperature and humidity. When sweat remains on your skin in high-humidity conditions, it can lead to heat rash — an itchy, uncomfortable skin irritation that can occur when your sweat glands get clogged.
Extremely low humidity conditions can also worsen skin irritation. Oftentimes, eczema becomes inflamed in winter as suffers travel between overheated buildings and cold outdoor temperatures. The low humidity typically associated with cold winter months can worsen flare-ups as the skin is drained of moisture and essential oils.
For people with asthma, humidity levels can influence the frequency and severity of symptoms. Mold and dust mites thrive in high-moisture environments, so elevated indoor humidity levels can increase the amount of airborne irritants you're exposed to on a daily basis. In addition, high humidity coupled with high temperatures can increase airway resistance when you breathe (making it feel more difficult to take a good breath) and trigger coughing and airway constriction in people with even mild asthma.
The best way to reduce flare-ups of any kind is to keep your indoor temperature and humidity consistent. Ideal indoor temperatures are typically between 72° and 78° F, with humidity between 40 and 50 percent. Keep your thermostat set to the same temperature during the daytime and nighttime and run a fan when you shower, exercise, or boil water (all humidity-producing activities). If you find that your indoor humidity levels fluctuate frequently, you may want to invest in a smart air quality monitor and humidifier/dehumidifier to maintain a healthier environment year-round.
5. Allergy-like Symptoms
High humidity can increase the amount of mucus in your nose and throat, causing congestion, sneezing, runny nose, and post-nasal drip. Although these symptoms may feel like an allergic reaction, they may actually be a form of nonallergic rhinitis — chronic allergic symptoms brought on by changes in your indoor environment, weather, medications, or foods.
Consult an Allergist to determine if your symptoms are triggered by specific allergens (such as pollen) or if they're a form on nonallergic rhinitis. Once you understand the cause of your discomfort, you'll have a better idea of what changes you can make (to your habits or your indoor environment) to improve your health. Nonallergic rhinitis won’t respond to antihistamines. That said, if you experience congestion, you can use can use a saline spray to clear out your nasal passageway and take a decongestant to reduce local swelling. To limit the likelihood of a flare-up, keep temperature and humidity levels in your home consistent — especially as outdoor conditions change with the seasons.
6. Poor Sleep Quality
Both too much and too little humidity can interfere with your beauty rest. When humidity levels are high, water vapor remains on your skin, causing you to feel clammy and uncomfortable. As soon as you pull off the covers, however, that same water vapor will rapidly cool you down and leave you grasping for the blanket once more. Cycling between these two temperature extremes will interrupt your sleep and prevent you from staying in REM. In addition to making you toss and turn, high humidity levels can also cause congestion and worsen nighttime allergy symptoms
In contrast, too little humidity will dry out your throat and nose, causing you to wake up parched or sleep less soundly due to chronic irritation or infection.
In high-humidity environments, opt for sheets made of 100 percent cotton. Cotton wicks moisture and provides better breathability than silk or polyester-blended fabrics. In addition, you may want to invest in a dehumidifier and fan to circulate air and reduce humidity levels in your bedroom.
In low humidity conditions, a humidifier can be your best friend. In addition to adding much needed moisture to the air, the gentle white noise produced by a bedroom humidifier can help you fall asleep and stay asleep through noise disruptions such as road traffic, snoring, and thunderstorms.
Take Control of Your Health
The best way to determine how humidity is affecting your health is to track your symptoms in relation to humidity levels. Outdoor humidity readings can be found on local weather sites, whereas indoor humidity can vary between different buildings and rooms. An air quality monitor can help you track humidity and temperature changes within your space and alert you when conditions become unhealthy.
Awair tracks indoor air quality in real-time and provides you with personalized recommendations to help you stay safe and healthy. To learn more about Awair and how it can help you conquer your symptoms, follow the link below.