Vaporizer vs Humidifier vs Nebulizer: Which is Best For You?

Ile Kauppila

Written By

Ile Kauppila

Expert Reviewed By

Josh Mitchell

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I understand that the number of different humidifying units can seem confusing. You may wonder how you’re supposed to pick the right device for your home and needs.

Not to worry — let me help you!

In this guide, I will explain all the differences between vaporizers, humidifiers, and nebulizers so you can choose what’s right for you and your health.

Key Takeaways

  • Vaporizers add moisture to the add by boiling up the water and releasing steam. Their blistering hot steam can be dangerous.
  • Humidifiers, also known as cool mist humidifiers, add moisture to the air without boiling up the water.
  • Nebulizers are personal medical devices that turn liquid-based medicine into steam to be inhaled and delivered directly to the lungs.

Key Differences Explained For Vaporizers, Humidifiers & Nebulizers

If I got a penny every time a client or friend asked me about the differences between humidifier types, I’d be retired to my own tropical island by now.

The primary difference between a vaporizer, humidifier, and nebulizer is their mode of operation.
vaporizer vs nebulizer vs humidifier

There are also key differences in many other areas you must know about, though.

I will cover the functionality of each device a bit later. But first, I’d like to start with how they differ in terms of purpose, cost, safety, and more.

Each Serves A Different Purpose

Vaporizers and humidifiers add moisture to the air of the room they’re placed in — or your whole home, depending on the device.

They generate a warm or cool water mist (cool mist units are my favorites) that they blow into the air.

A nebulizer is a medical device that delivers liquid medication and drugs directly into the lungs by breaking them into a fine mist.

They are essentially a form of a medical inhaler and should not be used to dispense medication into the general home atmosphere.

TL;DR: Vaporizers and humidifiers are devices used to raise humidity levels. Nebulizers are medical devices for administering drugs.

Costs Can Vary

A nebulizer is generally the cheapest device out of the three.

They are small and relatively simple, and your health insurance may also pitch in and help you pay for them.

Humidifiers or vaporizers cost more, but both devices are available in a massive range of prices depending on their size and features.

If you want to add moisture to the air, there will be a device that works for your budget.

Personally, I prefer ultrasonic humidifiers due to their low running costs.

TL;DR: Nebulizers are cheap, humidifiers and vaporizers vary in cost depending upon size and model.

General Safety – They Are All Safe To Operate

Nebulizers, humidifiers, and vaporizers are all safe to use — as long as you follow all instructions.

Distilled water for humidifiers

Humidifiers are generally the safest option out of the three, as humidifiers work with distilled water and have no heating element.

Nebulizers themselves are non-hazardous, but you must follow your doctor’s orders regarding the medication you dispense.

Vaporizers rely on boiling water to create steam, so the hot steam could cause burns or fire hazards.

TL;DR: They are all only safe to operate if you follow directions and instructions. Otherwise, each of these device can have detrimental effect.

Child Safety – Humidifiers Are Safest

Humidifiers are the safest devices to use around children for the reasons I just mentioned: they don’t use hot water.

Nebulizers are also often recommended for child patients, as they’re easier to use than inhalers.

Due to the hot steam they create and their heated parts, I would avoid vaporizers around children and pets.

It’s also best not to use a vaporizer in a child’s bedroom.

Humidifiers And Vaporizers Need Regular Cleaning

Humidifiers and vaporizers require more regular cleaning than nebulizers.

I recommend washing their water reservoirs every day with water and white vinegar, followed by thorough rinsing and drying.

The general guidelines for nebulizers recommend cleaning them once a week, also with water and vinegar.

In some cases, you may need to wash a nebulizer after each use.

TL;DR: Both humidifiers and vaporizers require regular cleaning.

Vaporizers Require The Most Maintenance

Vaporizers are the most maintenance-intensive machines, as their internal heating technology may result in significant mineral buildup.

Removing all that calcium and other mineral deposits takes some effort.

Humidifiers can also see mineral and bacteria buildup, but generally in lower amounts than vaporizers.

Both humidifiers and vaporizers may also require replacement filters.

Nebulizers are the easiest devices to maintain. Generally, they only require a good wash.

They All Carry Risks

Nebulizers, humidifiers, and vaporizers can all become a breeding ground for mold and bacteria if you leave water sitting in the water tank.

Frequent cleaning is the only way to prevent the growth of harmful contaminants.

Humidifiers and vaporizers could also produce too much humidity and promote the growth of mold, dust mites, and bacteria in your home.

The ideal humidity level indoors is between 30-50%.
What are the Optimal Humidity Levels

I advise buying a hygrometer to monitor the relative humidity in your home. (1)

With nebulizers, you may inhale too much or the wrong medication if you use them incorrectly.

Use these devices only as recommended by your healthcare provider.

TL;DR: Without regular maintenance, guidance and control, all three devices can become dangerous.

When To Use A Vaporizer, Humidifier, Or Nebulizer?

When choosing between a nebulizer, humidifier, or vaporizer, knowing their purpose and capabilities is essential.

I’ve listed some pointers on when to use a nebulizer, humidifier, or vaporizer.

If You Suffer From Allergies

Dry air can irritate your airway and worsen allergy symptoms — I can vouch for that.

humidifiers help with nasal congestion

Humidifiers and vaporizers increase indoor humidity, which can help avoid aggravating indoor allergies.

Vaporizers may be the best choice here as boiling water kills harmful contaminants.

However, if the humidity level is set too high, it can result in mold and dust mites, which are common indoor allergens.

I recommend people with indoor allergies (such as me) consult their doctors before buying any room humidifier. (2)

A nebulizer can also relieve allergies by delivering allergy drugs directly to your lungs. Of course, always ask your doctor about such treatments.

If You Are Asthmatic

A nebulizer is a common way to administer asthma medications. It can relieve respiratory symptoms particularly effectively, as a nebulizer is easier to use than an asthma inhaler.

The moist air created by vaporizers or humidifiers can help asthmatic people breathe easier (it has helped me).

Humidifiers alleviate asthma symptoms

However, too high humidity could promote the growth of asthma-triggering molds or dust mites, so monitor your home’s humidity.

For Alleviating Cold & Flu Discomfort

The symptoms of flu and cold may commonly include chest and nasal congestion along with sore throats.

I love using a humidifier or vaporizer to ease discomfort from my cold and flu symptoms.

Both humidifier and vaporizer effectively relieve congestion and irritation by moisturizing the air.

Furthermore, 30-50% air humidity can help reduce the number of airborne viruses. (3)

Nebulizers are rarely used to treat ailments such as the common cold and flu. But if your doctor recommends it, nebulizers can effectively treat these illnesses.

COVID-19 Mitigation

Harvard Studies have found that appropriate humidity levels can prevent COVID-19 transmission.

A humidifier or vaporizer can’t cure or remove COVID (as much as I wish it did) but it can make you less likely to get sick in the first place.

Additionally, if you have the disease, these machines can help you breathe easier.

Nebulizers may be used to administer medications to relieve COVID-19 symptoms. Once again, I encourage seeking professional medical advice.

VOC focused Air Purifiers are a better choice if you are looking to fight or prevent COVID.

Fighting Against Dry Skin, Eczema & Psoriasis

Vaporizers and humidifiers can be excellent ways to relieve itchy and dry skin and skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Humidifier can keep your skin moisturized

Adding moisture to the air helps keep your skin from drying up and can relieve itchiness and redness.

Nebulizers administer medicine to your lungs, so they don’t do anything for your skin.

TL;DR: Humidifiers and vaporizers can improve symptoms stemming from dry air. They are a general health improvement devices. Nebulizers, on the other hand, can help treat specific diseases by administering drugs.

What Exactly Does A Vaporizer Do? (How It Works)

A vaporizer — also called a warm mist humidifier — uses a heating element to boil water and release pure steam.

It is very efficient at increasing the humidity levels in your living space and can also provide some additional warmth

Yet, boiling water is also the main safety concern of a vaporizer.

Knocking one over can cause hot water burns or a fire hazard.

You shouldn’t confuse a warm mist humidifier with the kind of vaporizer that turns herbs or medicine into vapor.

Make sure you’re buying the right type of device.

There are multiple types of vaporizers available including:

Steam Vaporizers – Boil Water To Increase Humidity Levels

Steam vaporizers heat water and eject hot steam into the air. Once you plug the vaporizer in and turn it on, it starts heating the water.

Once the water reaches boiling point and turns into steam the unit pushes it through a hole, feeding it into your home.

Ultrasonic Vaporizers – Vibrate Water To Produce Humidity

Most ultrasonic vaporizers are cold mist devices, but some high-end units also can create warm mist.

Known as dual mist humidifiers, they work on a different principle than steam vaporizers.

When an ultrasonic vaporizer is plugged in, it begins to vibrate a metal plate.

The plate turns the water into tiny droplets. The droplets pass by a heating element and move into the atmosphere.

Impeller Vaporizers Use A Spinning Metal Disk

An impeller vaporizer with warm mist functionality works similarly to an ultrasonic dual mist vaporizer.

However, instead of a vibrating metal plate, the impeller vaporizer has a spinning metal disk.

Like the plate, the spinning disks break water into tiny droplets. They are sprayed out into the room after heating.

Benefits Of Using Vaporizers

  • Reduce irritation to mucous membranes in your nose, mouth, and sinuses
  • Moisturize dry skin and relieve itchiness and skin conditions.
  • Relieve discomfort from a cold, cough, flu, or hay fever
  • Reduce snoring and sleep apnea symptoms
  • Lower your heating bills by keeping you warmer and increasing room temperature
  • Keep your plants and wood furniture healthier

TL;DR: While vaporizers have many soothing benefits due to warm steam, they can be dangerous around children and pets.

What Exactly Does A Nebulizer Do?

Nebulizers break liquid drugs into a mist or droplets to make them easier to inhale.

They are relatively common devices for delivering asthma medications to young children and infants (I used one as a child).

They’re also used to administer bronchodilators for opening the airways and corticosteroids for relieving inflammation.

There are three common types of nebulizers:

  1. 1
    Nozzle Nebulizer Uses A Compressor
    Compressor or nozzle nebulizers use a compressor to force pressurized air through a medicinal solution, atomizing it into tiny droplets the patient can inhale.
  2. 2
    Ultrasonic Nebulizer Uses Vibrating Plates
    Ultrasonic nebulizers, like their vaporizer and humidifier counterparts, use an intensely vibrating plate to break medicine and water into a mist.
  3. 3
    Mesh Nebulizer Uses A Membrane With Tiny Holes
    A mesh nebulizer features a thin membrane with tiny holes in it. A vibrating element pushes medication through the membrane, creating an inhalable aerosol. Mesh nebulizers are lightweight and quiet, making them great for traveling.

Benefits Of Nebulizers

  • Efficiently deliver medicine to the lungs for quick relief
  • Clear obstructed airways without steroids
  • Provide easier medicine delivery than inhalers for small children
  • Ensure more reliable medicine delivery for accurate measuring
  • Reduce side effects from steroid or inhaler use, like headaches, weight gain, and high blood pressure

TL;DR: Nebulizers serve the medical purpose of administering drugs right into the lungs through mist.

What Exactly Does A Humidifier Do?

Like vaporizers, cool mist humidifiers release water vapor to increase humidity levels in the home.

Unlike steam vaporizers and warm mist humidifiers, they don’t feature heating elements and are generally smaller.

A cool mist humidifier is my recommendation for humidifying dry air in your child’s bedroom.

Here’s my breakdown of the most common types of humidifiers:

Ultrasonic Humidifiers For Cool Mist

Ultrasonic humidifiers work the same way as ultrasonic vaporizers and nebulizers.

How do ultrasonic humidifiers work

A metal plate called a diaphragm produces ultrasonic vibrations, dispersing water into an ultra-fine cool mist.

An ultrasonic humidifier is generally a quiet device, which is why I like having one in my bedroom.

Evaporative Humidifiers Use A Fan

Evaporative humidifiers pull water into an internal wick filter. As the moisture evaporates from the filter, a fan blows it into your living space.

There are also natural evaporative humidifiers that feature no fan at all.

Impeller Humidifiers Produce Mist By Spinning Disks

An impeller cool mist humidifier turns water into a mist with the help of fast-spinning metal disks.

The disks and an internal fan throw water droplets into the air, where they evaporate and humidify dry air.

Benefits Of Humidifiers

Cool mist humidifiers share many benefits with vaporizers, including:

  • Improve indoor air quality and make the air easier to breathe
  • Reduce coughing, sinus issues, and cold and asthma symptoms
  • Relieve cold weather symptoms, like chapped lips, dry skin, and nose bleed
  • Reduce levels of airborne viruses
  • Provide help with snoring
  • Moisturize dry skin and relieve eczema and psoriasis symptoms
  • Maintain the health of plants and wooden furniture

TL;DR: Humidifiers, aka cool mist humidifiers, do not have any hot part. They increase humidity levels in the air without resorting to boiling water.

FAQs

Can I Use A Humidifier Or Vaporizer As A Nebulizer?

You can’t use a humidifier or vaporizer as a nebulizer. Nebulizers are designed to deliver liquid medicine directly to your lungs to treat pulmonary diseases, which humidifiers can’t do.

Can You Use Tap Water In A Nebulizer?

You shouldn’t use tap water in a nebulizer, since it can carry contaminants or impurities that could harm your lungs when inhaled. I recommend using purified water instead of tap water

Is A Nebulizer Better Than An Inhaler?

A nebulizer isn’t necessarily better than an inhaler — both devices have pros and cons. Nebulizers can be easier for young children or people who react badly to inhalers. Inhalers are more portable and provide fast-acting relief.

Does A Nebulizer Put Moisture In Your Lungs?

A nebulizer adds a bit of moisture to your lungs as it breaks a liquid drug into fine droplets. Some nebulizers also add water to the mix.

So, Which Is The Best Choice For You?

Although they can all help you breathe more easily, vaporizers, humidifiers, and nebulizers are very different units.

Nebulizers provide medicinal relief to asthma and other patients, while humidifiers and vaporizers increase indoor air humidity.

I strongly recommend comparing the three devices so you don’t end up harming yourself or your family.

With my guide and tips, you can now choose the appropriate unit to help you breathe easily!

References: 

  1. https://www.epa.gov/mold/brief-guide-mold-moisture-and-your-home
  2. https://www.aaaai.org/
  3. https://www.consumerreports.org/flu/use-a-humidifier-to-prevent-flu-a6503801917/
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Ile Kauppila

MA Multimedia Journalism / BA English Philology

Ile Kauppila
Ile Kauppila is a globetrotting writer and editor living in Virginia. Ile holds an MA degree in Multimedia Journalism and a BA in English Philology. Ile has written for a variety of home, HVAC, and energy-related websites and publications. He has covered HVAC solutions, insulation, and energy-efficient construction, automotive AC systems for multiple auto dealerships and garages.

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