The nebuliser - a user's guide

Gemma Gleave and her nebuliser Gemma Gleave using her nebuliser

It sounds like a monster from Doctor Who, but the nebuliser is a key part of the lives of many people. Hook yourself up to this little machine and breathe deeply...

What is it?

A nebuliser is an important device for people with certain lung conditions. It dissolves drugs into a mist which is inhaled through a mouthpiece, allowing it to reach the affected areas quickly and directly.

Is it big?

Nebulisers have been around since 1981. Originally the machines were all fairly large and noisy. Users had to stick pipes out of the window (like a tumble dryer vent) so that others in the same room weren't also medicated. These days they're small handheld devices and have snazzy names like I-neb and the eFlow.

Who uses them?

People with cystic fibrosis (CF) are the main users of nebulisers - they need the machines several times a day to manage their condition. CF sufferers will often have one or more machines at home.

Previous Ouchlets

CF is a life-limiting genetic condition which stops movement of salt and water around the body. This doesn't sound like it should cause much harm (a bit of salt and water?) but in reality it means that mucus in the lungs doesn't get broken down - it becomes sticky and hard to shift with damage resulting. The condition also stops food being digested properly.

Among other things, a nebuliser can enable CF sufferers to inhale saline solutions which thin the sticky mucus and deliver antibiotics, ensuring bacteria doesn't grow in what would otherwise become a warm and welcoming environment.

Does it take long to nebulise?

It's all about the time. 28-year-old Gemma Gleave lives in West Yorkshire with her husband. She has cystic fibrosis and estimates that she must spend up to two hours on her machines daily.

"I neb about nine times a day - each session takes five to 15 minutes," she says. The old-style nebulisers took two or three times longer. "They were really noisy, you couldn't even watch television while on them because you couldn't hear it."

Component parts for a nebuliser Cleaning the nebuliser is a lengthy daily process for Gemma

Gleave spends around five hours each day managing her condition and just looking after herself. This involves taking medication (including insulin for a related diabetes condition), physiotherapy, IV treatments, taking exercise, using the nebuliser plus cleaning and sterilising its mouthpieces, tubes and chambers around the clock - a task she patiently describes as "repetitive". She gave up work five years ago to concentrate on her health.

Sorry, did you just say some people with CF spend five hours a day looking after themselves?

Cystic fibrosis in history

One of the more benign symptoms of cystic fibrosis is a salty brow.

An early reference can be found in the 1729 Book of Folk Philosophy.

"It was stated that an excessively salty taste to the skin meant a child was bewitched."

Yes. It depends how well you are on a given day but it all takes time. Louise Banks at the Cystic Fibrosis Trust says that if you're in good health you can slot nebulising into your routine.

"People with CF have been doing this for their whole life, like you brushing your teeth. Often we do hear of people struggling against it during their teenage years - they lose interest and decide not to bother."

Who else uses them?

Nebulisers are also used by people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, those with respiratory problems like chronic bronchitis, emphysema or asthma are now advised that a standard blue relief inhaler is the go-to solution in an attack, and that nebulisers are only for acute difficulty.

These groups are only likely to use a nebuliser at their doctor's surgery or in A&E and are generally advised against having one at home. Asthma UK say that having to use one could mean you aren't managing your condition well. They say you should be assessed if you have an acute attack, rather than self-medicating with a nebuliser.

You can follow Ouch on Twitter and on Facebook, and listen to our monthly talk show


More on This Story

More from Ouch

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    It's very humbling to read stories like this and to appreciate what some people have to do to simply stay alive.
    I'm asthmatic and life-long exercise (squash, running swimming, weight-training, cycling) has worked for me.
    I did these because I enjoyed them without realising I had asthma.
    I see the Asthma nurse once a year and she is exceptionally helpful and well informed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    My parent used a nebuliser for quite a few years in old age, and it was the only way that they felt relief from their condition. It was very noisy, and was only prescribed when the situation became acute. It did mean however that they had a quality of life for the final two years and could remain in their own home and not use a nursing home. I was the one who became their main carer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Re number of deleted threads some may be against the trolls. The one I posted I think number 4 or 5 was anti-troll? I only troll my friends on FB as they know I am teasing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    My doctor tells me to exercise for my health. Without enough medication I get severe problems exercising. The government seem to be always concerned about the cost of medication. Of course getting asthma problems because of medication problems makes being able to work very difficult, but the govt. seem to believe it's a good saving not to provide proper help. Usual CON stuff - miserly to stupidity

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    A users guide? Stick it in your mouth and breathe in and out through it. I've had to use nebulisers and corticosteroids 2 or 3 times in my life because of my Asthma. Not much fun. it's the worry more than anything I found unpleasant. The worry that you aren't going to be able to get enough air into your lungs to oxygenate your blood so you will die. Worst thing is the NHS attempts to lower dose.


Comments 5 of 39


Elsewhere on the BBC


  • Kinetic sculpture violinClick Watch

    The "kinetic sculpture" that can replicate digital files and play them on a violin

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.