Americans' opinions about humidity often seem relative.
A measure of the level of moisture in the air, humidity can have a drastic effect on everything it touches. Dry air can make extreme heat more tolerable - as in "it's a dry heat" - and can benefit those with some respiratory ailments, but it also can make such illnesses worse for some sufferers. Arid air is arguably good for your asthma but bad for your skin; good for your blowout but bad for your lips.
Whatever the outcome, low humidity is a perennial constant in Colorado Springs, which recently was included among a list of the nation's top 10 driest cities by Vicks, the cold medicine company. Denver also made the list.
"When looking at the top cities in America with the driest air, the Southwest definitely has a cluster due to the desert environment in states like New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada. Even though hot and dry go hand in hand, so does cold and dry and experts believe the flu season may spike in winter months due to low humidity levels," said Dr. Ted Myatt, senior scientist with Environmental Health & Engineering and the University of Rhode Island. New research indicates that upping the indoor humidity levels to between 40 percent and 60 percent can help kill influenza virus particles in the air and on surfaces.
Flu spikes aside, a recent survey of U.S. moms revealed that the most annoying winter ailments for families are dry skin, chapped lips and stuffy noses - all of which are associated with a lack of moisture in the air.
"As a dermatologist in Colorado Springs, I see a lot of dry skin," said Dr. Frank Samarin, a board-certified dermatologist with Mountaintop Dermatology. "The health effects of that really depend on the individual."
For some Front Range residents, he said, dry skin is merely an annoyance, addressed by more liberal application of moisturizer. For those with a history of skin problems, such as atopic dermatitis or eczema, a super-dry climate can lead to year-round flares.
"Eczema is a genetic problem where the skin doesn't retain moisture as well," Samarin said. "Add low humidity on top of that, and it dries out even more and can lead to scaling and rash."
Low-moisture environments also can exacerbate a form of age-associated eczema that manifests in patches of severely dry skin, often on the lower extremities.
On the upside, though, a dry climate lowers the risk of skin fungal infections, Samarin added.
The best defense against dry skin: a good moisturizer.
"Thicker is better than thinner. Lotions rub in nice but aren't thick enough to maintain moisture," said Samarin, who also recommends patients avoid products with lots of added ingredients or fragrances, which can irritate skin. "One of the most important times to moisturize the skin is right out of the shower or bath. While the skin has that moisture in it, you want to trap it in."
A humidifier can be helpful in treating dry skin, lips and nasal passages (and might aid sleep), but be sure to establish a regular maintenance schedule as an unclean machine can spread allergens.
Since its early days as a destination for those seeking a reprieve from the symptoms of tuberculosis, Colorado Springs has capitalized on the health and wellness benefits of a high-altitude, low-moisture climate, said Chelsy Murphy, director of communications for the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.
An arid location "is a huge selling point for us as a destination. Most of our leisure travelers are coming from places like Texas, Missouri and other very humid locations. Not only do we have mild climates mostly year-round, low humidity means no bugs."
For its interactive "moisture map," researchers compiled data on weather and geography for the most populated U.S. cities. Relative humidity is a measure of the amount of moisture in the air compared to the total amount of moisture the air could hold at a given temperature and pressure. Colder air, and air at higher altitudes, holds less moisture.
All of the nation's most humid cities - including Quillayute/Forks, Wash., and Lake Charles, La. - are clustered along the Gulf Coast and in the Pacific Northwest except Mount Washington, N.H., which was second.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364