Nebulizer

What Is a Nebulizer?

A nebulizer changes medication from a liquid to a mist so you can inhale it into your lungs.

Nebulizers come in home (tabletop) and portable models. Home nebulizers are larger, and you have to plug them into an electrical outlet. Portable nebulizers run on batteries, or you can plug them into a car outlet. Some are only a bit bigger than a deck of cards, so you can carry them in a bag or briefcase.

You may need a doctor’s prescription for a nebulizer, or you can get one at your pediatrician’s office. Many people also get breathing treatments at their doctor’s office.

Home nebulizers cost about $50 and up, plus the cost of accessories. Portable nebulizers usually cost a little more.

Health insurance policies usually cover nebulizers under their durable medical equipment portion. But most insurance companies want you to work with a certain supplier. Check with your insurance provider before buying or renting a nebulizer. Your health care team should be able to help you..

Types of Nebulizers

There are three main types of nebulizers:

  • Jet. This uses compressed gas to make an aerosol (tiny particles of medication in the air).
  • Ultrasonic. This makes an aerosol through high-frequency vibrations. The particles are larger than with a jet nebulizer.
  • Mesh. Liquid passes through a very fine mesh to form the aerosol. This kind of nebulizer puts out the smallest particles. It’s also the most expensive.

Talk to your doctor about whether a mouthpiece or a mask is right for you or your child. Face masks, which fit over the nose and mouth, are often better for children under 5 because they breathe through their nose more than older children and adults do.

Why Might You Use a Nebulizer?

Nebulizers are especially good for infants’ or small children’s asthma medications. They’re are also helpful when you have trouble using an asthma inhaler or need a large dose of an inhaled medication.

Nebulized therapy is often called a breathing treatment. You can use nebulizers with a variety of medications, both for controlling asthma symptoms and for relief right away. These include:

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Nebulizer vs. Inhaler

Inhalers and nebulizers both send medication into your lungs, and both have pros and cons.

A nebulizer is often easier for young children to use because all they have to do is breathe normally. It takes longer to deliver medicine: at least 5 or 10 minutes. And even portable nebulizers can be bulky and hard to carry around. But some people prefer nebulizers because they can see and feel the mist of medication.

Inhalers are often cheaper and tend to have fewer side effects than nebulizers. You can carry one in your pocket or bag. An inhaler can be tricky to use at first, but most people quickly get the hang of it. It delivers an exact dose of medication.

How Do I Use a Nebulizer?

Before starting, gather your supplies:

  • Air compressor
  • Nebulizer cup
  • Mask or mouthpiece
  • Medication (either unit dose vials or bottles with measuring devices)
  • Compressor tubing

Then, follow these steps:

  • Put the air compressor on a flat, sturdy surface. Plug it into a grounded (three-prong) electrical outlet.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water, and dry them completely.
  • Put medication into the nebulizer cup. Most comes already measured in unit dose vials. If you have to measure it yourself, use a separate clean measuring device for each medication.
  • Assemble the nebulizer cup and mask or mouthpiece.
  • Connect the tubing to both the aerosol compressor and the nebulizer cup.
  • Turn on the compressor to make sure it’s working the way it should. You should see a light mist coming from the back of the tube.
  • Sit up straight on a comfortable chair. If the treatment is for your child, they can sit on your lap. If you’re using a mask, put it on. Be sure it’s comfortable and secure. If you’re using a mouthpiece, put it between your or your child's teeth and seal the lips around it.
  • Take slow, deep breaths. If possible, hold each breath for 2 or 3 seconds before breathing out. This lets the medication settle into your airways.
  • Continue until the medication is gone. The nebulizer will make a sputtering noise, and the cup will have just a little liquid left in it.
  • If you get dizzy or jittery, stop the treatment and rest for about 5 minutes. Continue the treatment, and try to breathe more slowly. If you keep having problems during treatments, tell your doctor.

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If medication sticks to the sides of the nebulizer cup during treatment, you can shake the cup to loosen it.

Your doctor should tell you how often to use the nebulizer and for how long. You should also get an asthma action plan that explains which medications to use and when.

Using a portable nebulizer is like using a home nebulizer, but you don't need to plug it in. Most models are small enough to hold in your hand.

How Do I Care for My Nebulizer?

It’s important to clean and disinfect your asthma nebulizer equipment to prevent infection. Clean it in an area away from smoke, dust, and open windows.

Follow these instructions for cleaning your nebulizer:

  • After each treatment, rinse the nebulizer cup thoroughly with warm water, shake off excess water, and let it air-dry. At the end of each day, wash the cup and mask or mouthpiece in warm water with a mild detergent. Rinse it thoroughly and let it air-dry. You don’t need to clean the compressor tubing.
  • Every third day, after washing your equipment, disinfect it with either a vinegar/water solution or a disinfectant solution. To make the vinegar solution, mix ½ cup of white vinegar with 1½ cups of water. Soak the equipment for 20 minutes and rinse it well under a steady stream of water. Shake off the excess water and let it air-dry on a paper towel. Be sure it’s totally dry before storing it in a zippered plastic bag.

Storing

  • Cover the compressor with a clean cloth when you’re not using it. Wipe it with a clean, damp cloth if necessary.
  • Don’t put the air compressor on the floor, either for treatments or for storage.
  • Store medications in a cool, dry place. Some need to be kept in a refrigerator, and others should be kept out of the light. Check them often. If they’ve changed color or formed crystals, throw them out and replace them.

Other tips

  • Always have an extra nebulizer cup and mask or mouthpiece on hand. If you get a breathing treatment in your doctor’s office, ask for the tubing, cup, and mask.
  • Follow the equipment directions on checking, cleaning, and replacing the filter on the air compressor.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 26, 2020

Sources

SOURCES: 

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "Tips to Remember: Traveling with allergies and asthma;" "Delivery of inhaled beta agonists by metered dose inhaler with spacer vs nebulizer in the treatment of acute asthma;" and "Use of Inhaled Asthma Medications."

Whatsit.org: "Nebulizers Fight Asthma."

portablenebulizers.org: "Portable nebulizers."

Parthasarathy, A. IAP Textbook of Pediatrics, Jaypee, 2019.

Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School: “How to do breathing treatments with your infant or toddler.”

Brenner Children’s: “What’s the Difference Between a Nebulizer and an Inhaler?”

Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital: “Inhaler or Nebulizer: Which One Should My Child Use?”

American Family Physician: “Metered-Dose Inhalers vs. Nebulizers in Treating Asthma.”

Children’s Wisconsin: “Asthma medicine devices.”

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