A nebulizer turns your COPD medicine into a mist. It is easier to breathe the medicine into your lungs this way. If you use a nebulizer, your COPD medicines will come in liquid form.
With a nebulizer, you will sit with your machine and use a mouthpiece. Medicine goes into your lungs as you take slow, deep breaths for 10 to 15 minutes.
Many people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) do not need to use a nebulizer. Another way to get your medicine is with an inhaler, which is usually just as effective.
Nebulizers can deliver medicine with less effort than inhalers. You and your doctor can decide if a nebulizer is the best way to get the medicine you need. The choice of device may be based on whether you find a nebulizer easier to use and what type of medicine you take.
How to use a Nebulizer
Most nebulizers use air compressors. Some use sound vibrations. These are called "ultrasonic nebulizers." They are quieter, but they cost more.
Follow these steps to set up and use your nebulizer:
- Connect the hose to the air compressor.
- Fill the medicine cup with your prescription. To avoid spills, close the medicine cup tightly and always hold the mouthpiece straight up and down.
- Attach the other end of the hose to the mouthpiece and medicine cup.
- Turn on the nebulizer machine.
- Place the mouthpiece in your mouth. Keep your lips firm around the mouthpiece so that all of the medicine goes into your lungs.
- Breathe through your mouth until all the medicine is used. This usually takes 10 to 15 minutes. Some people use a nose clip to help them breathe only through their mouth.
- Turn off the machine when you are done.
Taking Care of Your Nebulizer
You will need to clean your nebulizer to prevent bacteria from growing in it, since bacteria can cause a lung infection. It takes some time to clean your nebulizer and keep it working properly. Be sure to unplug the machine before cleaning.
After each use:
- Wash the medicine cup and mouthpiece with warm running water.
- Let them air dry on clean paper towels.
- Later, hook up the nebulizer and run air through the machine for 20 seconds to make sure all of the parts are dry.
- Take apart and store the machine in a covered area until the next use.
Once per day, you may add a mild dish soap to the cleaning routine above.
Once or twice each week:
- You may add a soaking step to the cleaning routine above.
- Soak the cup and mouthpiece in 1 part distilled white vinegar, 2 parts warm water solution.
You may clean the outside of your machine with a warm, damp cloth as necessary. Never wash the hose or tubing.
You will also need to change the filter. The instructions that come with your nebulizer will tell you when you should change the filter.
Traveling With Your Nebulizer
Most nebulizers are small, so they are easy to transport. You may carry your nebulizer in your carry-on luggage when traveling by plane.
- Keep your nebulizer covered and packed in a safe place.
- Pack your medicines in a cool, dry place when traveling.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your doctor if you are having trouble using your nebulizer. You should also call if you have any of these problems while using your nebulizer:
- Feeling that your heart is racing or pounding (palpitations)
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling very excited
These may be signs that you are getting too much medicine.
Celli BR, Zuwallack RL. Pulmonary rehabilitation. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 105.
Han MK, Lazarus SC. COPD. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 44.
Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, Weinberger SE, et al. Diagnosis and management of stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a clinical practice guideline update from the American College of Physicians, American College of Chest Physicians, American Thoracic Society, and European Respiratory Society. Ann Intern Med. 2011;155(3):179-191. PMID: 21810710 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21810710.
Vestbo J, Hurd SS, Agusti AG, et al. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD). Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Vancouver, WA: GOLD; 2013. PMID: 22878278 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22878278. Accessed November 1, 2015.
Review Date 11/1/2015
Updated by: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.