Your Guide to Nebulizer Breathing Treatment

Medically Reviewed By Fred Aleskerov, MD
Was this helpful?

Breathing treatments help you to breathe better by turning medications into mist with the use of a nebulizer device. Also known as respiratory treatments, they can treat wheezing, shortness of breath, asthma, COPD, and more. Breathing treatments can take place at home or in a medical setting. Nebulizer treatments work by transforming liquid medication into a mist or aerosol form. You can then inhale it through a mask or a mouthpiece, helping it to reach your lungs more efficiently.

Medications for use during breathing treatments can vary. Some drugs help to treat infections, while others open airways, reduce mucus, or treat inflammation. Treatment options are available for adults, as well as infants and children.

Read on to find out more about types of breathing treatments and which conditions they may treat.

Types of breathing treatments

A person is wearing a nebulizer mask
Olga Sibirskaya/Stocksy United

Breathing treatments include medications that treat respiratory infections, chronic lung diseases, asthma attacks, and respiratory emergencies. Types of breathing treatments include:

  • Antimicrobial medications: Antimicrobial medications treat respiratory infections. Examples include pentamidine (Nebupent), ribavirin (Virazole), and tobramycin (TOBI).
  • Bronchodilator medications: Bronchodilator medications help to relax and open airways. Examples include ipratropium (Atrovent) and metaproterenol (Alupent).
    • Short-acting beta agonists relax and open narrowed airways. Examples include albuterol sulfate (AccuNeb) and levalbuterol HCl (Xopenex).
    • Long-acting beta agonists are designed for use in combination with inhaled corticosteroids. Examples include arformoterol (Brovana) and formoterol (Perforomist).
  • Combination medications: These combine benefits of more than one medication. An example includes a combination of ipratropium and albuterol (DuoNeb).
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids (steroids) reduce airway inflammation. Budesonide (Pulmicort Respules) is an example.
  • Mucolytics: Mucolytics help to loosen, thin, and clear mucus secretions from the lungs. Examples include acetylcysteine (Mucomyst) and dornase alfa (Pulmozyme).
  • Racemic epinephrine: Racemic epinephrine treats severe asthma attacks, croup, and other emergency breathing difficulties.

What conditions can breathing treatments help with? 

Your doctor may recommend breathing treatments to treat a range of breathing-related symptoms. These can include:

  • airway inflammation
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • thick mucus

These symptoms can be a result of a number of conditions. Examples of conditions that respiratory treatments can help with include:

  • asthma
  • pneumonia
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • croup, an acute viral infection typically affecting children under age 5
  • epiglottitis, a condition in which tissue that covers the windpipe becomes swollen
  • bronchiolitis, a viral lung infection that affects infants

View our Lungs, Breathing, and Respiration hub for more information about conditions that affect breathing.

Who performs breathing treatments?

A respiratory therapist may perform your first breathing treatment and teach you how to do your own breathing treatments at home. 

The following medical professionals may also prescribe breathing treatments: 

  • Allergists and immunologists: Medical professionals with specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of allergies, asthma, and immune deficiency disorders may prescribe a breathing treatment.
  • Critical care medicine doctors: Doctors specializing in critical care may advise providing medication through a nebulizer or similar breathing therapy device.
  • Emergency medicine doctors: Emergency medicine doctors specialize in rapidly diagnosing and treating acute or sudden illnesses, conditions, injuries, and complications of chronic diseases. They may use nebulizers to deliver medications.
  • Primary care professionals: Primary care professionals include internists, family practitioners, pediatricians, geriatricians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. They can offer comprehensive healthcare services and treat a wide range of illnesses and conditions.
  • Pulmonologists: Pulmonologists are internists or pediatricians with specialized training in treating diseases and conditions of the chest, such as pneumonia, asthma, tuberculosis, emphysema, or complicated chest infections.

When should I contact a doctor?

If you have a known condition that affects your breathing and you would like to discuss using a nebulizer for breathing treatments, contact your doctor to discuss this option.

If you experience shortness of breath or breathing difficulties due to an unknown reason, rather than as a result of physical exercise or a known health condition, seek medical advice immediately.

What happens during breathing treatment?

Breathing treatments involve inhaling medications using a nebulizer device. A nebulizer converts liquid medication into a mist.

The mist is easy to inhale, making it useful for treating infants, children, and others who may have difficulty using respiratory inhalers properly.

Nebulizer breathing treatments take 10–20 minutes and may occur in a hospital or at home. The breathing treatments generally involve these steps:  

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water before assembling a nebulizer device.
  2. Place the exact amount of prescribed liquid medication in the nebulizer medicine cup.
  3. Connect the hose from the nebulizer device to the air compressor.
  4. Attach the mouthpiece or mask to the medicine cup.
  5. Turn on the device and take slow, deep breaths until the liquid medication is gone.
  6. Rinse the mouthpiece and medicine cup with warm water and let them air dry.

If you plan on using breathing treatments at home, your respiratory therapist or doctor will show you how to use the nebulizer beforehand.

Will I feel pain with breathing treatments?

Breathing treatments with a nebulizer are painless and should be straightforward to carry out once you are used to it. If you feel any discomfort or pain at any point, contact your doctor or talk with your respiratory therapist.

Side effects of nebulizer breathing treatments

Medications for breathing treatments may have some potential side effects. These can depend on the type and strength of the medication, but may include:

Some medications may also cause side effects if they get into the eyes or on your skin when using a mask. Your doctor may advise that you use a mouthpiece instead.

How do I prepare for my breathing treatments?

You are an important member of your own healthcare team. It is essential that you understand your diagnosis and how to perform your breathing treatments before you leave the hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office. Asking questions during your appointment can help with this.

Questions to ask your doctor or respiratory therapist

It is a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointments. Questions you may wish to ask could include:

  • Why do I need breathing treatments?
  • Are there any other options for treating my condition?
  • How often and how long will I need breathing treatments?
  • When should I start a breathing treatment?
  • How should I take my other medications?
  • Who can I call if my breathing treatment equipment is not working properly?
  • When should I follow up with you?

Your doctor or respiratory therapist will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Additional treatment options

In addition to taking your medication at home with a nebulizer, your doctor may suggest other home treatments, medications, or steps to take to help to reduce your symptoms. Examples include:

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation: Pulmonary rehabilitation treatment programmes aim to help you to control your breathlessness, while improving fitness with fun classes.
  • Inhalers and spacers: If you use an inhaler to help with breathing issues, your doctor may give you a spacer. This helps to get the medication straight to your lungs.
  • Rescue packs: For conditions such as COPD or bronchiectasis, you may keep a rescue pack of medication at home. This ensures you have everything you need to begin treatment as soon as symptoms occur.
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking tends to make breathing difficulties even worse, so quitting smoking may help to alleviate some of your symptoms.
  • Getting vaccinated: Getting the flu and pneumonia vaccines each year can help to reduce the risk of chest infections.

Your doctor will be able to provide advice on how you can stop smoking.

Our guides to quitting smoking may also provide you with more information.

Breathing treatments for COPD

COPD may be treated using a nebulizer with one of the following types of medications:


Bronchodilator medications relax the muscles around the airways to make breathing easier. They may be short-acting or long-acting medications.

Long-acting bronchodilators offer a slow release of relief that may be effective over a number of hours. Short-acting bronchodilators work quickly but wear off after a few hours. Examples of short- and long-acting bronchodilators include beta2-agonists and anticholinergics.

Anti-inflammatory drugs

Anti-inflammatory drugs reduce inflammation, which helps to lessen swelling and mucus production in the airways. These medications are known as corticosteroids or steroids, and may also be inhaled with an inhaler or swallowed as a pill.

Combination medications

Combination medications typically include two or three medications in one. The combination can be made up of a corticosteroid, an anticholinergic, and a beta-agonist. Examples of combinations include:

  • short-acting beta-agonist and short-acting anticholinergic
  • long-acting beta-agonist and corticosteroid
  • long-acting anticholinergic and corticosteroid
  • long-acting beta-agonist and long-acting anticholinergic
  • long-acting beta-agonist, long-acting anticholinergic, and corticosteroid


If you experience a flare-up of symptoms as a result of a bacterial or viral infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. You can take an antibiotic with a nebulizer so that it reaches the lungs more quickly.

View our COPD hub for more information about the condition, including symptoms and possible treatment options.

Breathing treatments for pneumonia

Following a pneumonia diagnosis, your doctor may prescribe either antibiotics for a bacterial infection or viral medication for viral pneumonia.

Your doctor may recommend using a nebulizer to take the medication. This can help it to reach the lungs more easily, allowing it to get to work sooner.

Breathing treatments for bronchitis

If bronchitis occurs as a result of a viral infection, it may go away on its own after it has run its course. You can help this process by getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. You may also wish to consider taking a cough suppressant and using a humidifier.

If bronchitis occurs due to a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. You can discuss with your doctor the option of taking the antibiotics with the help of a nebulizer, as this may help to provide relief from symptoms more quickly.

Breathing treatments for asthma

It is possible to treat asthma with a combination of medications that reduce airway inflammation, prevent allergies, and reduce symptoms such as coughing and wheezing. The medications fall into the following categories:

  • bronchodilators, which relax and open the airways
  • anti-inflammatory medications, which reduce lung inflammation
  • combination medications, which typically combine a bronchodilator with an anti-inflammatory medication
  • leukotriebe modifiers, which block leukotrienes, chemicals that play a role in responses of the immune system
  • biologics, which target cells and pathways that cause inflammation connected to severe asthma

Your doctor may recommend using a nebulizer to treat your asthma symptoms. This may be particularly useful for small children or anybody who is unable to coordinate inhaler timing.


If you experience difficulties with breathing, a doctor may recommend a breathing treatment. This is typically done either at home or in a medical environment. Breathing treatments use a nebulizer, a device that turns liquid medication into mist. By inhaling medication through the nebulizer, it reaches your lungs more quickly and effectively.

Respiratory treatments can help with a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, mucus, and airway inflammation. These treatments may treat conditions including asthma, COPD, pneumonia, and bronchitis.

Nebulizer breathing treatments are not painful. However, they may present side effects, including a faster heartbeat, a dry mouth, headache, and mild tremor.

Contact your doctor if you experience any side effects during breathing treatments. Similarly, if you wish to find out more about nebulizer treatments, your doctor will be able to advise if this is the right kind of treatment for you.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: Fred Aleskerov, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Feb 28
View All Lungs, Breathing and Respiration Articles
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.
  1. Bassetti, M., et al. (2016). Characteristics of an ideal nebulized antibiotic for the treatment of pneumonia in the intubated patient.
  2. Breathing treatments. (n.d.).
  3. Dailey, P. A., et al. (2021). Review of aerosol delivery in the emergency department.
  4. Dhanani, J., et al. (2016). Fundamentals of aerosol therapy in critical care.
  5. Diagnosing and treating shortness of breath. (2021).
  6. How is asthma treated? (n.d.).
  7. How to use a nebulizer machine. (n.d.).
  8. Kimble, B. (2019). Know your providers: What does a pulmonologist do?
  9. Managing your COPD medications. (2021).
  10. Maselli, D. J., et al. (2017). Inhaled antibiotic therapy in chronic respiratory diseases.
  11. Nebulisers. (n.d.).
  12. Nebulizer defined. (n.d.).,-Asthma-Immunology-Glossary/Nebulizer-Defined
  13. Nebulizer treatment and cleaning. (2021).
  14. Pneumonia treatment and recovery. (2021).
  15. Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR). (2020).
  16. Restrepo, M. I., et al. (2015). Aerosolized Antibiotics.
  17. Using a nebulizer. (2015).
  18. What are the symptoms of bronchitis? (2020).
  19. What is a nebuliser? (2021).
  20. Zhao, X., et al. (2019). Expert consensus on nebulization therapy in pre-hospital and in-hospital emergency care.