By Wendy Manwarren
It's no secret: Winter air wages war on your health. That's because cold air holds less moisture, and indoor heating cooks it dry.
And if you're like most people, you've carefully sealed your home against potential drafts and air leaks. Such contained air will turn stale and increase the spread of germs due to the lack of circulation in the home, says Laureen Burton, a chemist and toxicologist with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Indoor Environments Division.
As a result, indoor air quality plummets, and you -- and your family -- suffer from such seasonal ailments as flaky and itchy skin, chapped lips, sinus infections, sore throats, colds, flu and other respiratory diseases.
But you can fight back by getting control of indoor pollutants, improving your home's overall ventilation, maintaining its heating system and controlling the relative humidity indoors.
Here are some easy ways to keep indoor air clean and healthy this winter:
1. Vacuum with a HEPA filter.
Dust or pet dander assault your home's indoor air on a daily basis but can be particularly problematic for your health when you're cooped up inside all winter.
Frequent cleaning is your best defense against these insidious pollutants. Vacuum floors and upholstered furniture often (at least once a week; more if you have pets) using a machine equipped with a HEPA filter, which helps trap the tiny dust, pet dander and dust mite particles.
2. Clean surfaces and wash linens.
Wipe down other furnishings (tabletops, picture frames, etc.) at least twice a week. Wash all bedding, including blankets and duvets, weekly with a quality detergent. Encase mattresses and box springs in hypoallergenic covers, which are typically made of wool, sheepskin or cotton and are designed to minimize the possibility of an allergic response.
3. Vent properly.
Use bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans when you're showering or cooking.
And invite fresh air in. Crack windows. Or install a relatively inexpensive in-window air exchange system (about $70), which pulls in filtered outside air without letting heated air escape.
Another option is a heat recovery ventilator, a whole-home solution that uses the heat in the outgoing stagnant air to warm the incoming fresh air. It's pricier (about $2,500 installed) but less obtrusive since it's usually installed in the basement.
4. Service home heating appliances.
"All heating systems and devices need to be installed, serviced and operated according to the manufacturer's specifications," explains Burton. This includes whole-home heating systems, space heaters, furnaces, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
You can do some of the maintenance yourself, like changing air filters. More intricate inspections, such as monitoring pipes and duct work or cleaning out the chimney, should be left to the pros.
5. Control humidity.
Once the air is clean, moving and warm, it's often still dry. Most think a humidifier is the answer, but too much moisture in the air can lead to condensation, mold and rot.
For optimal indoor comfort and health, a relative humidity of 45 percent is ideal, but anywhere between 30 and 60 is the target. Get a quality hygrometer (available at hardware stores at a wide range of prices) to monitor your in-house humidity level. And use a humidifier only when conditions require it, only when the heater is on and only in rooms with open doors so excess moisture buildup doesn't occur.