Getting emergency treatment through a nebuliser

If you're having an asthma attack, you might be given medicine through a nebuliser in an ambulance or in hospital

A nebuliser is a machine that changes liquid medicine into a fine mist. This mist can then be breathed in through a facemask or mouthpiece.

When are nebulisers used?

Nebulisers are used to give high doses of medicine:

  1. in an emergency when you’re having an asthma attack in an ambulance or in hospital
  2. when you’re being given certain tests to diagnose or rule out asthma
  3. if you have a diagnosis of severe asthma and your asthma specialist has prescribed you a nebuliser to use at home

On this page you can find out about getting emergency treatment through a nebuliser.

Who can be given medicine through a nebuliser?

Anyone can be given medicine through a nebuliser. For babies and small children, different size facemasks can be used. For older children and adults, either a facemask or a mouthpiece can be used.

What emergency medicines are given through a nebuliser to treat an asthma attack?

If paramedics treat an asthma attack at home or in an ambulance, or staff in A&E treat an asthma attack, they often give medicine through a nebuliser. The type of medicine will depend on your symptoms, but will probably be a high dose of reliever medicine to open up the airways, such as salbutamol, ipratropium bromide or magnesium sulphate.

Nebulisers can also sometimes be used to deliver higher doses of inhaled steroids or antibiotics into the lungs.

How long will I be given medicine through a nebuliser?

If you’re given a dose of medicine through a nebuliser, the treatment will usually last between five and ten minutes.

Asthma UK’s in-house GP suggests these top tips will help you get the most benefits from a medicine through a nebuliser:

  • If you’re using a mouthpiece, seal your lips around it and breathe through your mouth, not your nose.
  • If you’re using a facemask, place it over your mouth and nose.
  • Sit up as straight as you can.
  • As much as you can, try to take normal, calm breaths.

What are the possible side effects of having medicine through a nebuliser?

The higher doses of medication given through a nebuliser can cause some side effects, such as a faster heart beat or slightly shaking muscles. These usually pass within a few minutes or a few hours at most and are not dangerous. 

When are nebulisers not used?

Nebulisers are not used to treat mild to moderate asthma symptoms. This is because the latest research shows using a blue reliever inhaler with a spacer is:

  • just as effective
  • just as easy
  • cheaper

For most people with asthma, nebulisers are not recommended for treating asthma symptoms at home because:

  • you might wait longer before getting medical help when your asthma symptoms are getting worse. This can be dangerous. If your asthma symptoms are getting worse, you need to seek medical attention straight away.
  • it is hard to guarantee the quality of the nebuliser you buy
  • all nebulisers need to be serviced regularly
  • your healthcare professional will not supply the medicines that go into the nebuliser unless there is a real clinical need over and above the need for inhalers

If you think you need to use a nebuliser at home to get your asthma symptoms under control, it may mean that your asthma isn’t well managed. Speak to your GP or asthma nurse who can suggest other ways to get on top of your symptoms.

If you do need to use a nebuliser at home, your GP or asthma nurse will recommend the right device and medicine to use in it for you.

If you have any questions about your asthma, you can call our Helpline confidentially on 0300 222 5800 (9am - 5pm; Mon - Fri).

Last updated May 2017

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