Breathing Treatment Nebulizer Illustration

What is a Breathing Treatment? – Explained (2024)

by | Updated: May 29, 2024

Breathing treatments are a type of inhalation therapy, an essential aspect of managing and treating various respiratory conditions.

This involves the inhalation of medications directly into the lungs, typically through devices like nebulizers and inhalers.

By delivering drugs directly to the airways, they provide immediate relief for symptoms, improving lung function and enhancing the patient’s overall quality of life.

This article explores the purpose, types, and indications of breathing treatments, highlighting their importance in respiratory care.

What is a Breathing Treatment Used for?

A breathing treatment involves inhaling medications through a device called a nebulizer. This device breaks up liquid medication into a fine mist for easy inhalation into the lungs. Breathing treatments help manage conditions like asthma, COPD, or other respiratory diseases.


Breathing treatments are indicated for various respiratory conditions that cause difficulty breathing. This includes:

  • Asthma: To open airways during an attack or prevent flare-ups.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): To relieve symptoms such as shortness of breath or prevent future exacerbations.
  • Bronchitis: To alleviate cough and breathing difficulties.
  • Cystic Fibrosis: To thin mucus in the lungs.
  • Pneumonia: To aid in the administration of antibiotics or to alleviate symptoms.

Note: Always consult with a healthcare professional for personalized medical advice. If you experience any signs or symptoms of a breathing-related emergency, seek medical attention immediately.

What Does a Breathing Treatment Do?

A breathing treatment delivers medication directly to the lungs, which is particularly effective for respiratory conditions.

The device used, typically a nebulizer, converts liquid medication into a fine mist that can be easily inhaled.

This direct method allows for quicker symptom relief and is more effective than taking oral medication or injections, as it targets the affected area directly.

Conditions like asthma, COPD, and cystic fibrosis often see significant improvement with these treatments.

People taking breathing treatment with nebulizer illustration

Types of Breathing Treatments

There are generally two types of breathing treatments:

  1. Nebulizer treatments: Nebulizers convert liquid medication into a fine mist for inhalation. It’s a more passive form of treatment and is often used for children or people who have trouble using inhalers. It requires a power source and is less portable than an inhaler.
  2. Inhaler treatments: Inhalers are handheld devices that deliver a specific dose of medication when activated. They come in two forms: a metered-dose inhaler (MDI), which propels medication out when pressed, and a dry powder inhaler (DPI), which releases medication when you inhale. Inhalers are portable and convenient.

Choosing between a nebulizer and an inhaler largely depends on the patient’s condition, age, and lifestyle. Nebulizers, often easier for children and those with severe respiratory conditions, allow for passive treatment.

Conversely, inhalers are compact, portable, and best for those with an active lifestyle, provided they can use them correctly.

How Long Does a Nebulizer Treatment Last?

Typically, a nebulizer treatment lasts between 10 to 15 minutes. However, the exact duration can vary based on the type and amount of medication being administered, as well as the specific device used.

Note: It’s recommended to continue the treatment until the medication is completely gone, which is usually when the mist stops forming.

Breathing Treatment Medications

Several medications can be administered via breathing treatments, depending on the patient’s specific condition:

  • Bronchodilators: These include short-acting (like Albuterol) and long-acting (like Formoterol) bronchodilators, which open up the airways by relaxing the surrounding muscles.
  • Steroids: Inhaled corticosteroids (like Budesonide) reduce inflammation in the airways.
  • Anticholinergics: These (like Ipratropium) help to relax and dilate the airways.
  • Combination Medications: Some treatments combine bronchodilators and steroids (like Advair) for a more comprehensive effect.
  • Mucolytics: These (like Acetylcysteine) help to break up mucus in the lungs.
  • Antibiotics: In some cases, antibiotics may be nebulized for certain lung infections.

Remember: The choice of medication will depend on the diagnosed condition and should be prescribed by a healthcare professional.

Signs and Symptoms for Needing a Breathing Treatment

Certain signs and symptoms might indicate the need for a breathing treatment, including the following:

  • Shortness of breath: You’re struggling or uncomfortable when breathing.
  • Wheezing: You experience a whistling sound when you breathe, especially during exhalation.
  • Persistent cough: Especially if it’s affecting your sleep or daily activities.
  • Chest tightness: This might make it feel hard to breathe.
  • Rapid breathing: You’re breathing faster than normal, often combined with feeling anxious.
  • Difficulty performing usual activities: You’re having trouble walking, talking, or eating due to breathlessness.

If you experience these symptoms, consult a healthcare professional for evaluation and advice.

What is a Nebulizer?

A nebulizer is a medical device that converts liquid medication into a fine mist, allowing the user to inhale the medication directly into the lungs.

This method is effective for delivering respiratory medications to infants, elderly individuals, or anyone having difficulty using handheld inhalers.

Nebulizers are commonly used for the treatment of conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other respiratory diseases.

Types of Nebulizers

Nebulizers come in several types, each with their own advantages:

  • Jet Nebulizers: This traditional nebulizer uses compressed air to convert liquid medication into a fine mist. They are reliable and cost-effective, making them the most common type used in most healthcare settings.
  • Ultrasonic Nebulizers: These use high-frequency sound waves to create a mist, delivering medication quickly. They are faster and quieter than jet nebulizers but can be more expensive. Therefore, they’re as commonly used.
  • Mesh Nebulizers: These use a vibrating membrane to create a mist. They are the quietest, smallest, and most portable type, but they also tend to be the most expensive.

Note: Each type should be considered based on individual patient needs, cost, and convenience.

Risks of a Nebulizer Treatment

While nebulizer treatments are generally safe, they do come with potential risks and side effects:

  • Medication Side Effects: Depending on the medication used, side effects can include increased heart rate, jitteriness, or headaches.
  • Infection: If the nebulizer isn’t cleaned properly, it can harbor bacteria or fungi, leading to infections.
  • Worsening Symptoms: In some cases, treatments might cause bronchospasm, leading to worse breathing problems.
  • Allergic Reaction: Although rare, some people might have an allergic reaction to the medication used.

As with any medical treatment, it’s important to use nebulizers under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

What is Albuterol?

Albuterol is a medication that belongs to a class of drugs known as bronchodilators. It works by relaxing and opening air passages to the lungs to make breathing easier.

Albuterol is commonly used to prevent and treat wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness caused by obstructive lung diseases.

Side Effects

Albuterol is generally well-tolerated, but it can cause side effects in some people, including:

  • Rapid heart rate or palpitations
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Tremors, especially in the hands
  • Dry mouth or throat irritation
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea or vomiting

In rare cases, albuterol can cause more severe side effects like chest pain, irregular heartbeats, allergic reactions, or worsening breathing problems.

If you experience any severe or concerning side effects, it’s important to seek medical attention promptly.

FAQs About Breathing Treatments

What to Expect with Breathing Treatments?

Breathing treatments typically involve inhaling medication through a device like a nebulizer or an inhaler.

These treatments usually last around 10 to 15 minutes, offering relief for symptoms like wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.

Potential side effects depend on the specific medication used.

Who is an Ideal Candidate for a Breathing Treatment?

Ideal candidates for breathing treatments are those with respiratory conditions such as asthma, COPD, bronchitis, or cystic fibrosis.

These treatments can also be suitable for individuals experiencing difficulty breathing due to bronchoconstriction or infections. However, the appropriateness of breathing treatments should always be assessed by a healthcare provider.

How to Use a Nebulizer?

To use a nebulizer, you first add prescribed medication into the nebulizer cup. Then, connect the mask or mouthpiece, turn on the machine, and breathe in the medicated mist calmly and deeply.

Remember: It’s important to clean the nebulizer parts after each use to avoid infections.

What Does a Nebulizer Do to Your Lungs?

A nebulizer delivers medication directly into your lungs, helping to relax and open up your airways, reduce inflammation, or treat infections.

This can alleviate symptoms and make breathing easier in obstructive lung diseases.

Are Breathing Treatments Better Than Inhalers?

Whether breathing treatments are “better” than inhalers depends on the individual’s specific condition, age, and lifestyle.

Nebulizers can deliver medication more passively and are often easier for children or those with severe respiratory conditions, while inhalers are portable and convenient for those with an active lifestyle.

How Long Does a Breathing Treatment Last?

A typical nebulizer breathing treatment lasts between 10 to 15 minutes. However, the duration can vary based on the type and amount of medication used.

The treatment usually continues until the medication in the nebulizer is fully consumed, indicated by the mist no longer forming.

Can Breathing Treatments Help Pneumonia?

Yes, breathing treatments can help manage pneumonia symptoms by opening airways and making breathing easier.

In some cases, antibiotics can be delivered via a nebulizer. However, oral or intravenous antibiotics are more common for pneumonia treatment.

Do Breathing Treatments Help Bronchitis?

Yes, breathing treatments can help alleviate bronchitis symptoms. They can reduce inflammation, relax the airways, and aid in the expulsion of mucus, helping to alleviate coughing and breathlessness.

Will Breathing Treatments Help Croup?

Yes, in severe cases of croup, healthcare providers may recommend breathing treatments with epinephrine to reduce airway swelling and ease breathing.

These treatments are typically administered in a hospital setting.

Does a Breathing Treatment Help with Allergies?

Breathing treatments can help manage respiratory symptoms triggered by allergies, such as wheezing or shortness of breath.

However, they do not treat the underlying allergic reaction. Antihistamines or corticosteroids are typically used for allergy management.

Will Breathing Treatment Help a Stuffy Nose?

Breathing treatments primarily target the lungs and bronchi, not the nasal passages. They’re not typically used to relieve a stuffy nose.

Decongestants or antihistamines are more commonly used for this purpose.

Do Breathing Treatments Help with Mucus?

Yes, certain medications used in breathing treatments, known as mucolytics, can help thin and loosen mucus in the airways, making it easier to cough up.

This can be particularly helpful for conditions like cystic fibrosis or chronic bronchitis.

Do Breathing Treatments Increase Heart Rate?

Yes, some medications used in breathing treatments, such as albuterol, can cause an increased heart rate.

It’s a common side effect, but if it’s severe or causing discomfort, it’s important to inform your healthcare provider.

Can Breathing Treatments Cause Thrush?

Yes, inhaled corticosteroids used in breathing treatments can potentially cause oral thrush, a yeast infection in the mouth.

Rinsing your mouth after use and using a spacer with an inhaler can help prevent this.

Are Breathing Treatments Safe During Pregnancy?

Breathing treatments, including those with albuterol, are generally considered safe during pregnancy.

However, it’s crucial to discuss all medications and treatments with your healthcare provider during pregnancy to ensure they are safe for both you and your baby.

Will Breathing Treatments Keep You Awake?

Some people might feel jittery or experience an increased heart rate after a breathing treatment, which could potentially affect sleep.

If you find that a breathing treatment is disrupting your sleep, discuss this with your healthcare provider.

How Many Breathing Treatments Can You Take?

The number of breathing treatments you can take depends on your specific condition and the medication used.

Some people may need multiple treatments daily, while others may only need them during flare-ups. Your healthcare provider will prescribe a regimen that’s right for you.

Where Can I Get a Breathing Treatment?

Breathing treatments can be administered at healthcare facilities like hospitals or clinics, but most often, they’re done at home using a personal nebulizer or inhaler.

These devices and the required medications are available by prescription from your healthcare provider.

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor if you experience persistent or worsening respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, chronic cough, wheezing, or difficulty breathing.

Additionally, if you have a diagnosed respiratory condition and your current treatment isn’t managing your symptoms effectively, a medical consultation is needed.

Early diagnosis and treatment adjustments can significantly improve your quality of life and prevent complications.

Final Thoughts

Breathing treatments play a vital role in managing obstructive lung diseases, such as asthma, COPD, and cystic fibrosis.

The choice between nebulizers and inhalers largely depends on the patient’s specific condition, age, and lifestyle.

Various medications can be administered via these devices, offering bronchodilation and immediate relief from dyspnea.

As with any medical treatment, it’s critical to consult with healthcare professionals to determine the most suitable approach to address individual respiratory health needs.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


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