A nebulizer is a type of breathing machine that lets you inhale medicated vapors.
While not always prescribed for a cough, nebulizers may be used to relieve coughs and other symptoms caused by respiratory illnesses.
They’re especially helpful for younger age groups who may have difficulty using handheld inhalers.
You can’t get a nebulizer without a prescription. Talk to your healthcare provider if you or a loved one has a persistent cough that could possibly be remedied with nebulizer treatments.
Keep reading to learn more about the benefits and potential drawbacks of these breathing machines.
Coughing is a symptom — not a condition. Your body uses coughing as a way to respond to lung or throat irritants.
A cough may be caused by a variety of short-term and long-term conditions, including:
- post-nasal drip
- smoke exposure
- the common cold or flu, including croup
- lung irritation
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- acid reflux
- bronchitis (or bronchiolitis in very young children)
- cystic fibrosis
- heart disease
- lung disease
The role of a nebulizer is to quickly provide your lungs with medication, something that an inhaler may not be able to do as well.
Nebulizers work with your natural breathing, so they may be ideal for people who have difficulty using inhalers, such as babies and small children.
However, you should always talk with your healthcare provider before using them to make sure you have the proper medication and dosage for you or your child.
A nebulizer treatment may help reduce inflammation in the lungs and/or open airways, especially in the case of respiratory illnesses like asthma.
People with other respiratory diseases like COPD who have lung-related complications from a cold or flu may also benefit.
Once the medication works its way into the lungs, you may find relief from symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness and coughing.
Nebulizers usually don’t treat the underlying cause of cough alone though.
A chronic cough requires your healthcare provider to design a long-term treatment plan to help reduce your symptoms.
Using a nebulizer requires the machine itself, along with a spacer or a mask to help you breathe in the vapor.
It also requires liquid medication, such as:
- hypertonic saline
Nebulizers may be used on a short-term basis, such as in the case of an asthma flare-up or respiratory issues related to a cold.
They’re also sometimes used as preventive measures to reduce inflammation and constriction so that you can breathe more easily.
Medicated vapors can also help break up mucus if you have a virus or a respiratory flare-up.
Having a cough along with other symptoms of a respiratory flare-up, such as wheezing and trouble breathing, could indicate the need for a nebulizer.
If you don’t have a nebulizer, your healthcare provider may prescribe the machine as well as the necessary medication to use with it. If you already have a nebulizer, call your healthcare provider for instructions.
When you turn on the nebulizer, you should see a vapor coming from the mask or spacer (if not, double-check that you’ve placed the medication in properly).
Simply breathe in and out until the machine stops creating the vapor. This process can take 10 to 20 minutes at a time.
For breathing issues, such as cough, you may need to use your nebulizer treatment multiple times per day for relief.
Nebulizers can also be used for children, but only if they have a prescription from a pediatrician. In other words, you should not use your own nebulizer and medication to relieve your child’s cough.
Many pediatricians will administer a nebulizer on an outpatient basis for quick respiratory relief in children.
If your child has chronic breathing problems due to asthma, their healthcare provider may prescribe a device for use at home.
Children may be able to breathe medications easier through a nebulizer, but some might find it difficult to sit still for the required time it takes to administer the entire liquid vial (up to 20 minutes).
It’s important to talk to your child’s pediatrician about all the options available to treat a cough.
The exact treatment depends on whether the cough is acute or chronic, and whether your child has asthma or another underlying respiratory illness.
A nebulizer may complement other respiratory treatments in such cases.
When used as directed, a nebulizer is generally considered safe to use.
However, it’s important that you avoid sharing medications with family members or loved ones. A healthcare provider needs to determine the right medication to use in the nebulizer based on an individual’s health needs.
Nebulizers can also cause more harm than good if you don’t keep them clean.
As liquid is emitted through the machine, this type of device can be a breeding ground for mold. It’s important to clean and dry the tubes, spacers, and masks immediately after each use.
Follow the cleaning instructions that come with your nebulizer machine. You may be able to clean it with soap and sterile water, rubbing alcohol, or a dishwasher. Make sure all pieces are able to air dry.
A cough can last for several days, especially if you’re healing from a virus related to a cold or flu. A worsening cough though is a cause for concern.
If you have a lingering cough that continues to worsen or if it lasts longer than 3 weeks, see a healthcare provider for other options.
You may consider emergency medical help if your child is showing signs of breathing difficulties, which includes:
- audible wheezing
- persistent cough
- shortness of breath
- bluish skin
You should also seek emergency care if a cough is accompanied by:
- bloody mucus
- chest pain
- dizziness or fainting
- choking sensations
A nebulizer is just one way you can treat a cough, usually a cough that’s caused by airway inflammation.
This method works by treating the underlying causes of the cough itself so that you can get relief from symptoms overall.
You shouldn’t use a nebulizer without first identifying the cause of your cough. See a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and medication recommendations before using a nebulizer.