What is a Handheld Nebulizer?

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  • Written By: Cassie Slane
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 08 January 2020
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A nebulizer is an inhalation machine that turns liquid medication into a fine mist. It's a treatment used by people with upper respiratory illnesses. A handheld nebulizer simply means that that machine is smaller and portable as compared to the traditional nebulizer. The portability of the machine makes it convenient for people with chronic illnesses such as asthma and cystic fibrosis who need to administer the medication mist frequently.

A handheld nebulizer works by connecting plastic tubing to a mouthpiece or face mask. The medication is placed in a nebulizer cup that is attached to the tubing just below the face mask. The mouthpiece or face mask is held to the patient's mouth or face and the machine is switched on. Children and infants who can't hold the mouthpiece in their mouth typically use the face mask instead.

There are two major types of handheld nebulizers, jet nebulizers, also known as atomizers, and ultrasonic nebulizers. Jet nebulizers come in one of three types. The most common type is known as constant output — an air compressor constantly forces air converted into aerosol for the patient to then inhale. Another type of jet nebulizer, the breath-enhanced jet nebulizer, increases the rate at which the medicated mist is created. A third type of jet nebulizer, the dosimetric jet nebulizer, releases the mist only when the patient inhales.


Instead of using compressed air, like their jet counterparts, ultrasonic handheld nebulizers use high-frequency vibrations to turn medication into a mist. Some ultrasonic handheld nebulizers need water to carry the vibrations while others don't. Ultrasonic nebulizers tend to be the smallest type of nebulizer because they don't need the space for a air compressor. They also tend to be the most expensive type of nebulizer. Ultrasonic nebulizers are said to create a more uniform and more reliable delivery method.

Nebulizers can vary in size from four ounces to four pounds (about 113 grams to 1.8 kilograms). Some of the smaller handheld nebulizers can run on AA batteries while larger models are plugged into outlets. Some handheld nebulizers use rechargeable batteries so they can be taken anywhere.

Handheld nebulizers provide a variety of advantages but the primary benefit is obvious — it frees up patients who are dependent on nebulizers. It helps patients lead active lifestyles which is oftentimes not only beneficial physically but psychologically as well.

Nebulizers administer different types of medications for different illnesses. Albuterol, which is a bronchodilator, relaxes muscles in the airways and increases air flow to the lungs. Steroids, on the other hand, such as budesonide, aid in the treatment of asthma, hay fever and other allergies.


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