Breathing Treatments After Surgery

If you have recently had surgery and are recovering in the hospital, you may be receiving breathing treatments from respiratory therapists or nurses. Breathing treatments are done for a variety of reasons, as they can be used to treat a disease that is present, calm inflamed airways or to prevent breathing issues. For patients who remain on a ventilator after surgery, breathing treatments will be part of routine care and are often given multiple times a day.

nurse holding nebulizer
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What Is Breathing Treatment?

A breathing treatment is a medication that is turned into a fine mist and inhaled. They are specifically used to treat respiratory illnesses. This type of respiratory therapy is also known as a nebulizer treatment and may contain steroids and other medicines that are used to decrease inflammation and secretions.

They can also relieve the feeling of tightness in the lungs caused by bronchospasm and may improve oxygen flow. One common nebulizer treatment is DuoNeb, a combination of albuterol and ipratropium. Xopenex (levalbuterol), a similar medication, is also routinely prescribed after surgery. 

Other Types of Common Respiratory Treatments

Some respiratory treatments are given as an inhaler, which is the type of handheld device that you may have seen used by an individual with asthma. This type of medication is powdered and inhaled. It can be used to treat an episode of shortness of breath or asthma, and can also be used as a preventative treatment.

Medications are also given in a pill form to reduce the effects of respiratory problems. Medications that are inhaled are often a more direct way of treating the lungs, but medications that are taken as a pill, capsule or through an IV treat the body as a whole. This is especially important if allergies play a role in the breathing issue, or if inflammation is so severe that a stronger steroid is required. 

Use in Treating a Respiratory Disease

If you have asthma, a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as emphysema, or another type of respiratory problem, you may routinely take medicine to improve your breathing at home. While in the hospital, you will likely be prescribed breathing treatments to treat your illness and prevent a “flare up” after surgery. 

Use By Individuals Without a Respiratory Disease

Even if you don’t have a respiratory illness, you may receive breathing treatments after your surgery. This is to reduce any inflammation that may be present after being intubated or having a breathing tube in your airway that allows you to be on the ventilator during your procedure. 

Being on a ventilator, even for a short time, can increase the risk of pneumonia, so breathing treatments are often prescribed to help reduce that risk. Being on a ventilator can also be very irritating to the airways, and nebulizer treatments can help soothe that irritation.


Some breathing treatments, such as Albuterol, are known to increase the heart rate. For patients who already have a rapid heart rate, medications that increase the heart rate should be avoided in most cases. For patients who are experiencing this type of reaction, a medication such as levalbuterol (Xopenex) may be used. 

Many treatments make the patient feel jittery for a few minutes. For patients who are particularly sensitive to these medications, the feeling may last 15 to 20 minutes, but it will pass. Other risks include:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Throat and mouth irritation
  • Runny nose
  • Thrush--an overgrowth of yeast in the mouth, which can be prevented by avoiding the tongue during treatment and rinsing the mouth after treatment
  • Hyperactivity--typically in children, for a short period of time after treatment containing steroids
  • Arrhythmias--individuals with heart issues may find their heart beats faster or is more notable after a breathing treatment, and, in less common cases, some may experience a change in their heart rhythm.

A Word From Verywell

Breathing treatments are often a routine part of care while in the hospital but are typically stopped when the patient returns home unless they have an ongoing breathing issue that requires treatment. Patients who required breathing treatments prior to surgery can expect those to continue during the recovery period in most cases. 

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lindquist DE, Cooper AA. Safety of levalbuterol compared to albuterol in patients with a tachyarrhythmiaJ Pharm Technol. 2014;30(1):13-17. doi:10.1177/8755122513507700

Additional Reading

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.