How to Use an Incentive Spirometer

Step-By-Step Instructions for Exercising Your Lungs

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An incentive spirometer is a handheld medical device. that helps retrain your lungs to take slow, deep breaths. Exercising your lungs with an incentive spirometer helps you maintain healthy air sacs (alveoli), which are where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.

An incentive spirometer can be used after surgery. It can also help you manage a lung condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, or asthma.

This article will go over what you should know about using an incentive spirometer, including a step-by-step guide and tips for keeping the device clean.

3 balls Spirometer

How Incentive Spirometers Are Used

An incentive spirometer teaches you how to take slow, deep breaths. It can help you build your lung capacity while recovering from surgery or help you reach breathing goals when you have a lung disease.

An incentive spirometer can help with:

A 2019 study showed that using incentive spirometry after lung surgery helped patients avoid complications such as pneumonia. However, other research has shown that using an incentive spirometer is not as helpful after bariatric or weight loss surgery.

Different Types of Spirometers

An incentive spirometer is different from a spirometer that's used to test your lung function. An incentive spirometer is a simple device for at-home use and does not measure your breath volume or lung function.

Getting Your Incentive Spirometer

There are different models of incentive spirometers, ranging from under $20 to over $100. You may need a prescription if you want to file an insurance claim for the device. If you have just had surgery, the hospital may give you an incentive spirometer to take home with you.

Your healthcare provider or respiratory therapist will tell you how often and for how long to use the incentive spirometer at home.

Most of the time, spirometry can be done every hour or two. Your provider may recommend more or less frequent use, depending on what your needs are.

After surgery, you may need to use your spirometer for however long you will be at risk for lung complications. Usually, that means you'll have to keep using it until you are up and moving about as much as you did before you had surgery.

How to Use an Incentive Spirometer

Here's a step-by-step guide to using an incentive spirometer.

  1. Sit upright in a comfortable chair or on the edge of your bed.
  2. Hold the device upright with both hands. Slide the indicator to the target level (the indicator is usually on the left near the mouthpiece). Your healthcare provider will tell you where to start, but 1250 millimeters (mm) is a good ballpark. You may need to increase or decrease this level, depending on your goals.
  3. Place the mouthpiece in your mouth and seal your lips around it. Try not to block the mouthpiece with your tongue.
  4. Breathe in slowly and as deeply as possible. The piston below the indicator should rise inside the column.
  5. When you've reached your full inhale capacity, remove the mouthpiece and hold your breath for at least three seconds (or as long as you can). The piston will drop to the bottom of the column. If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, take a break.
  6. Exhale normally, then rest. Cough to clear your airway of mucus if needed.
  7. Reset the indicator to the level that you reached during your best effort.

Repeat these steps 10 to 12 times every hour that you are awake, or as often as your provider tells you to. If you do not reach your goal, do not get discouraged. You will improve with practice and as you heal.

Normal Incentive Spirometer Readings

You'll see some lines and numbers marked on your incentive spirometer device. Your provider will tell you which mark is your goal to hit or which range you should aim for.

The "normal" range for incentive spirometer readings depends on different factors, like your age and sex, any conditions you have, and why you're using the spirometer. Your provider will use these factors to calculate what your goal will be.

Do Incentive Spirometers Have Risks?

There are few risks or complications from regular incentive spirometer use. However, you should pay attention to how you're feeling when you're using it. If you feel lightheaded while you're using your incentive spirometer, take a break.

Rarely, using spirometry has been linked to collapsed lungs (pneumothorax) in people with emphysema, but usually only if they are using it too often or breathing too hard.

People with certain medical conditions or risks should not use an incentive spirometer, including:

  • People who just had eye surgery (forceful breathing can put stress on the eyes)
  • People with a collapsed lung
  • People with an aneurysm in the chest, abdomen, or brain

How to Clean Your Incentive Spirometer and Tips for Comfortable Use

After each use of your incentive spirometer, clean the mouthpiece with warm water and soap. Wait more than 24 hours before reusing a disposable mouthpiece on your spirometer.

You'll probably feel some discomfort as you work on strengthening your lungs with an incentive spirometer.

If you are using a spirometer after surgery with a chest or abdominal incision, taking a deep breath is important but can be painful. Some people find it helpful to hold a pillow tightly against their incision when they're taking deep breaths.

Follow your healthcare provider or respiratory therapist's instructions. Let them know if you run into any trouble using the spirometer or if you have questions or concerns.


Incentive spirometry is a breathing treatment that you can do after surgery or to help manage a chronic lung condition. Using an incentive spirometer can help strengthen your lungs and prevent infections like pneumonia.

You may get a spirometry device when you're discharged home from the hospital after surgery. A respiratory therapist or another provider will tell you how often to use the spirometer and where to set the level the first time you use it.

Using an incentive spirometer can be tricky at first, and it might be a little uncomfortable, but you'll get the hang of it with practice. Each time you use the device, try to do better than you did the last time to make progress on your breathing goals.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is an incentive spirometer?

    An incentive spirometer is a handheld device used to help your lungs recover after surgery or from a lung illness. The device helps you inhale at a slow, steady pace to help build lung strength and capacity.

    An incentive spirometer is not the same as a diagnostic spirometer used for pulmonary function tests.

  • What are the parts of an incentive spirometer?

    An incentive spirometer is made up of a breathing tube with a mouthpiece, a smaller chamber with a flow indicator, and a larger chamber that's marked in millimeters and has a free-moving piston. The body of the device is made of clear plastic.

  • How do you use an incentive spirometer?

    Here are the steps to using an incentive spirometer:

    1. Sit upright
    2. Exhale fully
    3. Put the mouthpiece in your mouth and make a tight seal with your lips
    4. Inhale slowly so that the flow indicator stays in the middle of the smaller chamber and the piston rises to the level your provider set as your goal.
    5. When you have inhaled to your full capacity, remove the mouthpiece.
    6. Hold your breath for three to five seconds.
    7. Exhale normally.
  • Who needs an incentive spirometer?

    An incentive spirometer can be used by people who are at risk for or have complications from certain lung diseases or surgeries, including people who:

6 Sources
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. MedlinePlus. Using an incentive spirometer.

  2. Medline Plus. Using an incentive spirometer.

  3. Eltorai AEM, Baird GL, Eltorai AS, et al. Perspectives on Incentive Spirometry Utility and Patient ProtocolsRespiratory Care. 2018;63(5):519-531. doi:10.4187/respcare.05872.

  4. Liu CJ, Tsai WC, Chu CC, Muo CH, Chung WS. Is incentive spirometry beneficial for patients with lung cancer receiving video-assisted thoracic surgeryBMC Pulm Med. 2019;19(1):121. doi:10.1186/s12890-019-0885-8

  5. Kenny J-ES, Kuschner WG. Pneumothorax Caused by Aggressive Use of an Incentive Spirometer in a Patient With EmphysemaRespiratory Care. 2012;58(7). doi:10.4187/respcare.02130.

  6. Franklin E, Anjum F. Incentive spirometer and inspiratory muscle training. In: StatPearls [Internet].

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.