Nebulizer Treatments for Bronchitis

Having a cough can be miserable, keeping you awake at night and interrupting your day as well. A common cause of cough is bronchitis, an inflammation of the bronchi, the tubes that carry air into your lungs. If you have chronic bronchitis, your doctor may recommend nebulizer treatments. 

A nebulizer is a small machine that turns liquid medicine into a mist, allowing you to breathe it into your lungs. Most often, nebulizers are used to deliver bronchodilators and steroids, which can relax airway muscles and reduce inflammation caused by chronic bronchitis. Bronchodilators and steroids can also be delivered via an inhaler. A nebulizer may be used in hospitalized patients, some children, or people who may have difficulties with an inhaler. 

Here’s what you should know about using a nebulizer to treat bronchitis. 

woman using nebulizer on the couch

Luca Lorenzelli / EyeEm / Getty Images

What Is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the tubes that bring air to the lungs. When these tubes, called the bronchi, become swollen and infected, it can cause symptoms of bronchitis, including:

  • Cough
  • Chest congestion
  • Fever

There are two types of bronchitis that occur.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is caused by an infection, like a cold or the flu. These infections, which can be viral or bacterial, can settle in the lungs and develop into bronchitis. In cases of acute bronchitis, the first symptoms are often congestion and sore throat. Then, a cough emerges, becoming dry and hacking with time. 

Acute bronchitis can happen to anyone, including children. Generally, the symptoms clear up within three to 10 days, but the cough can last much longer than that.

Nebulizers are not typically used to treat acute bronchitis.  

Chronic Bronchitis 

Chronic bronchitis happens when a person is exposed to environmental toxins. Most often, it occurs in people who smoke, but it can also develop in people who are exposed to dust, pollution, or other irritants.

People with chronic bronchitis have an ongoing cough. Although there are treatments for chronic bronchitis—including nebulizer treatments—there is no cure for the condition.

How Nebulizers Treat Bronchitis

If your bronchitis is severe or long-lasting and hasn’t shown improvement from over-the-counter treatments and home remedies, your doctor might recommend prescription treatments. If your infection is bacterial, your doctor might recommend antibiotics to address the root cause of bronchitis.

They may also prescribe inhaled medications, including:

  • Bronchodilators: These medications, like albuterol, relax the muscles around the bronchi. That allows the bronchi to become wider. This can help mucus drain from the lungs, and also improve your airflow and reduce feelings of tightness in the chest. 

These inhaled medications are commonly used in inhalers to treat bronchitis. However, some people find it difficult to use an inhaler, which requires coordinated and strong breaths. A nebulizer is easier to use and can help deliver inhaled medications to kids and people with low lung function, like those with chronic bronchitis. 

How to Use a Nebulizer

A nebulizer is generally used for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. During that time, you use a mouthpiece or mask, which delivers the medication mist directly into your mouth. You take slow, deep breaths in order to draw the medication into your lungs.

If you have never used a nebulizer before, ask your doctor or pharmacist for instructions and tips. Here’s an overview of how to use a nebulizer:

  1. Wash your hands and gather your machine and medication. 
  2. Set up the machine, attaching the hose to the air compressor, pouring the medication into the medication cup, and attaching the hose to the medicine cup. 
  3. Put the mouthpiece into your mouth, and close your lips tightly around it. If you’re using a nebulizer with a child, talk to your doctor about a mask, which covers the child’s mouth and nose and delivers the medication. 
  4. Breath deeply and slowly through your mouth. If you have trouble with that, consider using a clip to block your nose, so that you’re breathing in the medication fully. 
  5. When the medication has run out, turn off the machine and wash the mouthpiece and medicine cup.

If you’re giving a nebulizer treatment to a child, try to keep them calm and distracted. These steps might help:

  • Use television or a tablet to distract your child
  • Deliver the treatment while your child is sleeping
  • Make a game of wearing the mask and doing the breathing treatment

Clean Your Nebulizer

When you're finished doing a nebulizer treatment, it’s important to clean your nebulizer. The last thing that you want is another infection when you already have bronchitis. Cleaning your nebulizer between treatments can help stop the spread of germs and infection. You’ll also need to clean your nebulizer more thoroughly once a week.

Here’s how to wash your nebulizer between uses:

  • Take apart the machine. You’ll be washing the mouthpiece or mask, top piece, and medicine cup. Never put the hose in water—just set it to the side while you’re washing. 
  • Wash the mouthpiece, top piece, and medicine cup on the top shelf of the dishwasher. Alternatively, wash them in warm, soapy water by hand. 
  • Place them out to air dry. 

Once a week, you should do a more thorough cleaning, following these steps:

  • Take apart the machine, gathering the mouthpiece, top piece, and medicine cup.
  • Soak the piece in warm water with a bit of white vinegar for 30 minutes. 
  • Lay them out to air dry. 
  • Wipe the tubing and compressor with a disinfecting wipe. 
  • Every six months, replace the air filter in your air compressor. 

When to Call a Doctor

The symptoms of bronchitis, especially chronic bronchitis, can last a long time. However, it’s important to stay in contact with your doctor.

If your symptoms start getting worse, reach out to your doctor. If you experience trouble breathing, call 911 or seek immediate medication attention. A nebulizer treatment is not the same as a rescue inhaler, and should never be used during an emergency. 

Summary

Nebulizers are a potential treatment option for bronchitis. To determine if this is a good treatment option for you, speak with your healthcare provider

A Word From Verywell

Although using a nebulizer might seem intimidating, it’s quite simple. Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist any questions that you may have. Then, take a deep breath—soon you’ll be able to use the nebulizer without a second thought. Establish a routine around your nebulizer treatments, so that you can look forward to a few minutes of peace and quiet that help manage your bronchitis symptoms. 

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Article Sources
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  1. MedlinePlus. Acute bronchitis. Updated January 2, 2017.

  2. MedlinePlus. Chronic bronchitis. Updated January 3, 2017.

  3. MedlinePlus. How to use a nebulizer. Updated May 4, 2021.

  4. MedlinePlus. How to use a nebulizer. Jan 13, 2020

  5. KidsHealth from Nemours. How can I help my child cooperate while using a nebulizer? Updated March 2018.

  6. American Lung Association. How to clean a nebulizer. Updated February 27, 2020.