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What is a nebuliser?

A nebuliser is a machine that helps you to breathe in medicine as a fine mist through a mask or a mouthpiece. On this page, we explain what a nebuliser is used for and the different types of nebuliser available. We also explain the difference between nebulisers, inhalers and spacers.

What is a nebuliser?

A nebuliser is a machine that turns liquid medicine into a fine mist. You then breathe in the mist through a mask or mouthpiece. A nebuliser comes in four parts:

  • a small plastic container (the nebuliser chamber)
  • an air compressor (the nebuliser machine)
  • a length of air tubing
  • a facemask, or a mouthpiece.

The compressor forces air through the liquid medicine that sits in the chamber. This turns the liquid medicine into a fine mist. The mist is breathed in through the facemask or mouthpiece, through the connecting tube.

lady using a nebuliser
Someone using a nebuliser with a face mask

What’s a nebuliser used for?

Most people use handheld inhalers to take prescribed regular inhaled medication.

You may use a nebuliser to inhale medication to clear your airways or to treat infections:

  • in an emergency, if you are struggling to breathe and need a high dose of your reliever medicine - paramedics or hospital staff may give you reliver medicine through a nebuliser. 
  • at home if your condition is very severe, and you are unable to use an inhaler or inhalers are not as effective as nebulised medicine. 
  • if you can’t use an inhaler because of another health condition, such as arthritis. Nebulisers are also used for babies and very small children. 

For most people with lung conditions, especially for people living with COPD and asthma, using a handheld inhaler is easier and just as effective, especially if used with a spacer. But if you live with certain lung conditions, like cystic fibrosis or bronchiectasis, your health care professional may arrange for you to use a nebuliser at home. Read more about who could benefit from using a nebuliser as part of their treatment.

What are the different types of nebulisers?

There are a many different types of nebulisers available. Two of the most common are:

  • Ultrasonic nebulisers: these use high-frequency vibrations to make an aerosol. Ultrasonic nebulisers can be expensive and are not often used outside hospitals.
  • Jet nebulisers: these use compressed gas to make an aerosol. Jet nebulisers are the most commonly used type of nebuliser.

Nebuliser medications are usually administered through a mask. For some people with some medications, you may be advised to use a mouthpiece as this prevents possible side effects if a medication gets in your eyes or on your skin. Mouthpieces may also be the best way to deliver the maximum amount of medication. For example, if you have bronchiectasis, to get the most saltwater solution into your lungs to help clear mucus. Check with your health care professional if you’re not sure if you should use a mask or mouthpiece with your nebuliser.

What’s the difference between a nebuliser, spacer and inhaler?

Alongside a nebuliser, treatment for your lung condition may include inhalers and the use of a spacer.

What is an inhaler?

If you have a lung condition, as part of your treatment you may inhale medications to clear your airways, relieve your symptoms and prevent flare-ups.

Inhalers are a common method of delivering inhaled medication. You can read more about inhalers and watch videos on how to use them correctly to get the best benefit. It’s very important to have your inhaler technique checked on a regular basis to make sure it’s correct and effective.

lady using a nebuliser
Image of a brown inhaler

What is a spacer?

A spacer is a large, empty container usually made of plastic that you fix to an inhaler. They are used with metered dose inhalers (MDIs) to help you get more medication straight into your lungs. You can read more about spacers in our asthma information.

lady using a nebuliser
Image of a spacer attached to an inhaler

Next: Who can benefit from using a nebuliser?

Download our nebulisers information (PDF, 390KB)

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