7 Things to Know About Nebulizers for Asthma

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Sarah Lewis, PharmD on September 20, 2020
  • Young boy using asthma nebulizer at home on couch
    Inhaled Medicines: The Mainstay of Asthma Treatment
    Asthma sufferers know the discomfort of struggling to get a breath. They also know the relief medicines can provide. To control asthma, they rely on two approaches—rescue, or quick-relief medicines and maintenance, or long-term control medicines. Both types of medicines are available as inhaled medicines that carry active ingredients right to the lungs. Many people use an asthma inhaler to deliver medicine. But sometimes this isn’t the best choice. Nebulizers offer an alternate way to take inhaled medicines and maintain asthma control.
  • Asthma medication nebulizer and mask
    1. Nebulizers are small air compressors.
    A nebulizer is a device that converts liquid medicine into a fine mist. The main part of the machine is a small compressor, which produces compressed air. Tubing runs from the compressor to a mouthpiece or mask. Just below the mouthpiece is the actual nebulizer cup that holds the liquid medicine. Compressed air travels from the machine, through the tubing to the cup. In the cup, the compressed air aerosolizes the medicine and carries the mist to the mouthpiece. You simply breathe in the mist to get your nebulizer treatment. Most nebulizers are small and portable.
  • Woman with asthma using nebulizer at home
    2. Nebulizers can deliver both types of asthma medicine.
    People can use asthma nebulizers to deliver both quick-relief medicines and long-term control medicines. Short-acting beta agonists are common quick-relief medicines for asthma attacks. Albuterol is an example. It comes as both an inhaler and a nebulizer solution. To prevent attacks and maintain long-term control, many people use inhaled corticosteroids. Budesonide (Pulmicort) is an example of a long-term control medicine you can use in a nebulizer.
  • Young child using asthma nebulizer while playing with blocks
    3. Nebulizers are an option for people who struggle with inhalers.
    Inhalers work for a lot of people with asthma. They are convenient and easy to carry. However, it takes some effort to perform the correct technique. You have to coordinate your breathing with the delivery of medicine. Spacers can help, but some people still struggle to get the full dose of medicine. This is when to use a nebulizer. Nebulizers do not require you to work with the machine to deliver the medicine. It’s a more passive delivery. This makes it ideal for babies, young children, the elderly, or anyone who is not getting the full benefit of an inhaler.
  • Young woman using asthma nebulizer at home at kitchen table
    4. Nebulizer use follows a procedure.
    To use a nebulizer, start with clean hands. You will place the dose of medicine in the cup, attach the mouthpiece, and connect the tubing to the cup and the machine. When you turn on the machine, you will see a fine mist coming out of the mouthpiece. If you use a mask, it will cover your nose and mouth. To use a mouthpiece, place it between your teeth and close your lips. Then, breathe slowly and deeply through your mouth. Your doctor may tell you to hold your breath briefly every so often. It can take up to 10 minutes to complete the treatment. You will know it’s done when the liquid is gone.
  • Washcloth in soapy water
    5. Nebulizers need cleaning and care.
    The last thing you want is a problem from using a dirty nebulizer. After each use, detach and wash the mouthpiece and nebulizer cup in warm, soapy water. Rinse them thoroughly and let them air dry. You do not need to wash the tubing. Every 2 to 3 days, give the mouthpiece and nebulizer a more complete cleaning. After washing, soak them in 1 part distilled vinegar and 3 parts hot water. After 30 minutes, rinse them and let them air dry. Check the manufacturer’s directions to see if you can use the top dishwasher rack, or boil in distilled water.
  • Caucasian mother comforts child with cystic fibrosis
    6. Nebulizer compressors need care too.
    To keep the compressor in tip-top shape, cover it with a clean towel when you aren’t using it. This will keep dust and other particles out of it. Keeping it off the floor at all times will also help with this. If it becomes dusty, wipe it with a clean, damp cloth. Also, check the filter as the manufacturer recommends. The instructions should tell you how to wash or replace the filter when necessary.
  • Young boy using asthma nebulizer
    7. Nebulizers and their parts don’t last forever.
    Like anything with mechanical parts, a nebulizer can eventually breakdown or stop working as effectively as it should. In general, nebulizers will last for several years with proper cleaning and filter care. The manufacturer should tell you how often to replace parts, including the tubing, cup and mouthpiece or mask. It’s important to follow these recommendations. Using worn-out parts can cause the compressor to work harder than it should and lead to problems. It’s a good idea to keep an extra mouthpiece or mask and tubing just in case you need a replacement.
Nebulizers for Asthma | 7 Things to Know About Nebulizer Treatment

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. Asthma. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asthma/symptoms-causes/syc-20369653
  2. Home Nebulizer Therapy. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/4297-home-nebulizer-therapy
  3. How Often to Replace Nebulizer Parts. Aeroflow Healthcare. https://aeroflowinc.com/how-often-to-replace-nebulizer-parts/
  4. How to Use a Nebulizer. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000006.htm
  5. How to Use Your Inhaler or Nebulizer. American Pharmacists Association. https://www.pharmacist.com/sites/default/files/files/How%20to%20Use%20Your%20Inhaler%20or%20Nebulizer%20-%20eng.pdf
  6. Quick Asthma Card: Nebulizers—Medicine in a Mist. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://www.aafa.org/media/Quick-Asthma-Nebulizers-Card.pdf
  7. What Are Nebulizers and Inhalers? Nemours Foundation. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/nebulizer-inhaler.html

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 20
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.