Inhalation therapy is the use of inhaled agents to treat respiratory diseases and conditions. The goal of inhalation therapy, also known as respiratory therapy, is to improve breathing and lung function in order to alleviate the symptoms of chronic respiratory issues, such as asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and emphysema. Therapy may also be used to treat respiratory complications that might result from heart attacks and stroke. Treatment generally is administered by specialists, known as inhalation therapists, who work in emergency rooms, intensive care units (ICU), and surgical wards. Some common types of inhalation therapy include oxygen therapy, mechanical ventilation, incentive spirometry, nebulization therapy, and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).
The form of inhalation therapy ordered usually depends on the type and stage of respiratory disease in question. Oxygen therapy is usually prescribed for patients in the later stages of COPD, because a decrease in oxygen is indicated in the blood. The patient typically is administered oxygen through the use of a nasal tube or mask, so in many cases, the treatment can be performed at home. This type of therapy can also be effective in treating respiratory issues associated with chronic congestive heart failure, cystic fibrosis, and other pulmonary diseases.
In cases of extreme respiratory distress, mechanical ventilation is often used. A tube is inserted into the patient, normally via the mouth, and a ventilator machine assumes the normal breathing function. The therapy is usually used as a short-term measure, but in some instances, this type of inhalation therapy is used long-term to treat chronic illness.
Patients who have had thoracic or upper-abdominal surgery are often prescribed incentive spirometry, which is an inhalation therapy that is meant to simulate natural yawning and sighing. This method teach patients to take slow, deep breaths. A device called a spirometer is used to measure respiratory function and provides feedback to a patient when his or her breathing function meets a predetermined rate and pace.
For patients with sleep apnea, a CPAP is usually the most effective inhalation therapy because it provides constant positive airway pressure that prevents the upper airway from collapsing. A mask is usually fitted to the patient and humidified oxygen is then dispensed. This method typically makes it possible for the patient to breathe without obstruction.
Asthma patients utilize the most widely known type of inhalation therapy — nebulization therapy. A nebulizier, or inhaler, is used to administer vaporized medication to the patient that helps open the airways. Due to its portable nature, a nebulizer is most commonly used for home treatment and enables many patients to control their asthma on the go.
Inhalation therapists are not technically doctors, but their treatment is often critical to patients with respiratory issues. Originally, inhalation therapists received their training on-the-job; in modern times, most are college educated. Some inhalation therapists even have master’s degrees and attend continuing education programs to maintain an up-to-date knowledge on inhalation therapies.