A nebulizer is a small machine that creates a mist out of liquid medication, allowing for quicker and easier absorption of medication into the lungs.
Typically, nebulizers come in both electric or battery-run versions, and are either portable (so you can carry with you) or meant to sit on a table and plug into a wall.
Both versions of nebulizers are made up of:
- a base that holds an air compressor
- a small container for liquid medication
- a tube that connects the air compressor to the medication container
Above the medication container is a mouthpiece or mask you use to inhale the mist.
A nebulizer is helpful for a variety of conditions, including:
Nebulizers are also a helpful way to deliver medication during palliative care and to very young children.
There are three main types of nebulizers available:
- Jet nebulizers make an aerosol out of medications using a compressed gas (like air). These are the most common type of nebulizers.
- Ultrasonic nebulizers make an aerosol via high-frequency vibrations. These are more commonly used in hospitals and typically are not for personal use.
- Mesh nebulizers use a mesh cap with tiny holes that help dispense medication in a very efficient way. These nebulizers are newer and often more effective than jet nebulizers.
Your doctor will tell you how often to use your nebulizer. They will also help you with any specific instructions for your treatment.
Always take your medication as prescribed. It’s important that you follow your doctor’s directions regarding how and when to use your nebulizer.
Using a nebulizer can take around 10 to 15 minutes. All you need to do is breathe normally.
Here are general instructions on how to use a nebulizer:
- First, make sure all your pieces are clean.
- Pour your liquid medication into the medicine cup.
- Connect the plastic tubing to the liquid container and compressor.
- Next, attach the mouthpiece or mask.
- Turn on the nebulizer to make sure it’s properly misting.
- Insert the the mouthpiece in your mouth, or put the mask securely over your nose and mouth.
- Breathe in slowly, but normally, until all the medicine is gone.
A nebulizer delivers liquid medication via pressurized air. While individuals with asthma typically use both nebulizers and inhalers, occasionally, a nebulizer may be easier to use — especially when it comes to young children who may not have the proper technique for an inhaler.
However, when airways become narrow — like during an asthma attack — an inhaler is most likely the best choice, because a nebulizer can take some time to set up.
Examples of medications used in nebulizers include:
- Bronchodilators are drugs that help to open up the airway.
- Medical-grade saline (saltwater) solutions are solutions that help break up mucus in the lungs.
- Antibiotics are used to help treat or prevent infections.
Your doctor will determine which medications you need to take via the nebulizer based on your individual needs. You may receive premixed containers of liquid that can be opened and placed in the machine, or you may have to mix the solution before each use.
Not every medication can be delivered with a nebulizer. Certain medications like steroids need to be administered via an inhaler.
Since you are breathing vapor from your nebulizer, it has to be clean. If the machine is not cleaned correctly, bacteria and other germs could grow inside it.
Your doctor will give you detailed directions on how to clean and care for your machine, but generally:
- Your nebulizer should be cleaned using hot, soapy water after each use.
- It should be disinfected once a week.
- It should be air-dried on a paper towel or clean cloth.
Since it is not possible to completely clean the inside of the tubing, it should be replaced regularly. Your healthcare professional should explain how often you need to change the tubing.
- Take off the mouthpiece/mask and remove the medication container.
- Wash these parts with hot water and mild liquid dish soap.
- Shake off the extra water.
- Let these pieces air dry on a clean piece of paper towel or dish towel.
- Take off the detachable parts (mouthpiece and medication container).
- Soak them in the solution provided by your doctor or one part white vinegar and three parts hot water.
- Let these parts soak for 1 hour or as long as listed in the instructions.
- Remove the parts and let them air dry.
- Once the parts have been cleaned and dried, store them in an airtight plastic container or bag.
- Keep in a cool, dry area.
- Make sure to keep your nebulizer free of dust.
Pros of nebulizers
- They are easier to use when you are having an asthma attack, since you don’t need to take deep breaths while using one.
- Multiple medications can be delivered at the same time.
- A nebulizer may be easier to use with young children.
Cons of nebulizers
- Nebulizers are usually not as easy to transport as an inhaler.
- They often require a stationary power source.
- Delivery of medications takes longer through a nebulizer than through an inhaler.
Nebulizers are machines that turn liquid medications into a fine mist, allowing for easy absorption into the lungs. They are used for a variety of health conditions, including COPD, asthma, and cystic fibrosis, and are sometimes used in conjunction with inhalers.
There are a few different types of nebulizers. Your doctor will let you know which type works best for you. They will also explain how to use it and how to care for it.