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Could humidity be the key to staying healthy?

PITTSBURGH — With cold and flu season in full swing, we know washing hands is helpful, but could there be a simple way to reduce your risk of getting sick? The answer may have to do with humidifiers.

While many parents use them in their young child’s room, researchers are finding they may have benefit in decreasing sickness.

Harvard Medical School lecturer, pediatric oncologist and molecular biologist Dr. Stephanie Taylor has been researching the importance of air humidity for years.

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"I think this is one of the most effective precautions we can take in homes, schools, and hospitals," said Taylor.

Taylor and her colleagues studied close to 400 hospital patients, trying to narrow down the root cause of their hospital infections. They looked at everything from the number of visitors to hand hygiene. But what they found shocked even them.

"That's when we first found this relationship between dry indoor air and infections. We didn't believe it. We just thought, that's crazy," Taylor said.

After a second analysis, one factor stood out: When indoor air was dry, as it tends to be in the winter, infection rates went up. She says it's all about microbes in the air, which are the microscopic organisms all around us.

Most microbes are good, but the ones that tend to survive in a dry environment, and that actually become airborne, cause viruses and bacterial infections. So, while hand washing is important, it can't always protect you from germs.

"We need hand hygiene -- that's important -- but when the air is dry and has these infectious particles floating around, they resettle onto surfaces," said Taylor. "The problem is your hands can get re-contaminated from the air from things settled out of the air onto your hands and you don't even know it because you haven't touched anything."

Taylor says dry air also harms our body's natural immune barriers that fight infections. Her research found the ideal humidity levels for indoor air range between 40 and 60 percent relative humidity.

So, how do you know what the air level is in your home? There are inexpensive devices called hygrometers.