If you have asthma, your doctor may prescribe a nebulizer as treatment or breathing therapy. The device delivers the same types of medication as metered-dose inhalers (MDIs), which are the familiar pocket-sized inhalers. Nebulizers may be easier to use than MDIs, especially for children who aren’t old enough to properly use inhalers, or adults with severe asthma.
A nebulizer turns liquid medicine into a mist to help treat your asthma. They come in electric or battery-run versions. They come in both a portable size you can carry with you and a larger size that’s meant to sit on a table and plug into a wall. Both are made up of a base that holds an air compressor, a small container for liquid medicine, and a tube that connects the air compressor to the medicine container. Above the medicine container is a mouthpiece or mask you use to inhale the mist.
Your doctor will tell you how often to use the nebulizer. Ask your doctor if there are any specific instructions for your treatment. You should also read the manual that comes with your machine.
Here are general instructions on how to use a nebulizer:
- Put the compressor on a flat surface where it can safely reach an outlet.
- Check to make sure all the pieces are clean.
- Wash your hands before prepping the medication.
- If your medication is premixed, place it in the container. If you need to mix it, measure the correct amount, and then place it in the container.
- Connect the tube to the compressor and the liquid container.
- Attach the mouthpiece or mask.
- Turn on the switch and check to see that the nebulizer is misting.
- Put the mouthpiece in your mouth and close your mouth around it or put the mask securely over your nose and mouth, leaving no gaps.
- Slowly breath in and out until the medicine is gone. This may take five to 15 minutes.
- Keep the liquid container upright throughout the treatment.
Pressurized air passes through the tube and turns the liquid medicine into a mist. During an asthma attack or a respiratory infection, the mist may be easier to inhale than the spray from a pocket inhaler. When your airways become narrow — like during an asthma attack — you can’t take deep breaths. For this reason, a nebulizer is a more effective way to deliver the medication than an inhaler, which requires you to take a deep breath.
Nebulizers can deliver short-acting (rescue) or long-acting (maintenance to prevent acute attacks) asthma medication therapy. Also, more than one medication can be given in the same treatment. Examples of medications used in nebulizers include:
Your doctor will determine which medications you need to take in the nebulizer based on your individual needs. The type of medication and dose will be prescribed by your doctor. 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.
The nebulizer should be cleaned after each use and disinfected after every other treatment. Since you are breathing the vapor from the machine, it must be clean. If the machine is not cleaned correctly, bacteria and other germs could grow inside it. Follow your healthcare provider’s directions for cleaning and disinfecting, to make sure that you’re not breathing harmful germs.
The tubing should be replaced regularly, since it is not possible to completely clean the inside of the tubing. Your healthcare provider should explain how often to change the tubing.
- Take off the mouthpiece/mask and remove the medicine container. Wash this with hot water and mild liquid dish soap.
- Shake off the extra water.
- Reconnect the medicine container and mouthpiece/mask to the compressor. Turn on the device to air dry the pieces.
- Take off the detachable parts (mouthpiece and medicine 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 one hour, or as long as listed on the instructions.
- Remove the parts and either let them air dry or reconnect the machine to dry them.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure you have the correct instructions for daily cleaning and disinfecting your nebulizer.
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.
Discuss an asthma treatment plan with your doctor. Nebulizers are an effective treatment for asthma, but the machines are noisy, usually require a power source, and the treatment takes longer.
If you get relief from a pump inhaler, your doctor may prescribe a nebulizer for use only when the pump isn’t working for you. Having a nebulizer on hand can be a good backup plan to avoid emergency room visits.
- Albuterol (inhalation route). (2015, April 1)
- Ben-Joseph, E.P. (2014, January). What’s the difference between a nebulizer and inhaler? Retrieved from
- Mullen, A. (2015, February). Using a nebulizer