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How Do I Use Saline in a Nebulizer?

By S. Waddell
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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It’s normally pretty easy to use saline in a nebulizer, though to get started you’ll want to be sure to read the instructions that came with the device so that you know what you’re dealing with; taking a few steps to ensure the right solution proportions and volume can be helpful, too. Most nebulizers can be used with saline or inhaled medications, often interchangeably. Saline is a good option for people who want to try something natural, or who want a break from their medication for awhile without losing the benefits of a clearer airway. In most cases, you use saline the same way you’d use a medication, which is to say that you pour it into the device’s fluid receptacle and wait for the vapor. You can buy prepared solution or make your own, and it's important to thoroughly clean the machine after each use to prevent build-up.

Identify Your Nebulizer

A nebulizer is a device that changes a liquid solution into a vapor or mist for inhalation, and there are usually two varieties: the compressor type and the ultrasonic type. The ultrasonic type is generally faster and more efficient since it has no air compressor. This also makes it much quieter when it is running, though it tends to be more expensive, too. The two varieties take liquid in similar ways, though they have nuanced differences when it comes to how much to use, as well as how and where to put it.

In either scenario, you will typically use saline the same way you’d use a liquid medication. Taking a look at the instructions that came with your particular model is usually the best place to start. Manufacturers usually give guidelines when it comes to how the liquid should be used and any precautions that you need to take. If you can’t find your instruction booklet, you may be able to find a copy online. Your doctor or health provider may also be able to help.

Prepare the Solution

Once you’ve identified the specifics of your device, it’s time to get the saline ready. Saline solution can be purchased in many pharmacies and health food stores, but many people prefer to make their own. It is easy to do by mixing 1 teaspoon (about 5 mL) of ordinary table salt or sea salt with 1 quart (about 1L) of distilled water. Regular tap water is often a fine substitute if distilled water is not available, though this depends to a certain extent on its cleanliness.

Check Volume and Placement Accuracy

Next you’ll want to actually pour the solution into the machine, making sure that you’ve used neither too little nor too much. The nebulizer will probably have a cap in which to put the liquid, and you’ll pour it in the same way you would a prescription drug. In most cases there will also be a tube that runs from the solution chamber to the mouthpiece or mask, and you should be sure that it is connected properly and securely since this is how the saline mist will make it to your throat and lungs.

The use of saline in a nebulizer is well regarded as a safe and effective way to treat breathing difficulties. Many people also like it because it doesn’t usually have the side effects associated with prescription medications. Saline can easily be inhaled through the device’s mask or mouthpiece and it goes straight to the lungs, where it breaks up mucus so that the mucus can be coughed up. It moistens the nasal cavity, too, and relieves excessive coughing. In most cases it’s the moisture that provides the most immediate relief, even with only saline and no medicine.

Regular Maintenance and Cleaning

While getting relief is the most important goal, it’s important to clean and maintain the machine between uses to make sure it will continue operating properly. In most cases your nebulizer will have to be cleaned and dried well after every use. Using only saline will make this work easier, but doesn’t usually eliminate it. Medicines can be sticky, but salts can build up as deposits over time that can clog the tubes and passageways. Areas that are left moist, even only with water, are often good breeding grounds for bacteria, too.

What Does Inhaling Saline in a Nebulizer Treat?

Inhaling saline from a nebulizer is an effective treatment for clearing mucus, which can help people breathe a little bit better. It’s not specific to one illness or condition and can be used for almost anyone struggling with a mucus buildup or breathlessness. 

Most people who their doctor tells to utilize saline in their nebulizer are those who suffer from: 

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Cystic Fibrosis 
  • Bronchiectasis 
  • Other lung diseases

Some studies have shown that mild saline inhalation in babies can help reduce or prevent difficulty breathing and wheezing in infants with acute bronchiolitis.

Can a Nebulizer Saline Treatment Help COVID-19 Patients?

Since using saline in a nebulizer has been proven to assist people with various lung diseases and conditions, upon the recent COVID-19 pandemic, studies have started to see whether this treatment can be a viable option for those with the disease. 

More studies need to be conducted to see how well a nebulizer saline treatment will work for COVID-19 patients of varying severity, but there has been one study worth mentioning. 

In this study, the experimental treatment with an electrolyzed saline solution via a nebulizer produced no adverse side effects for those with COVID-19. This solution drastically reduced the symptoms and progression of the disease for non-disabled patients. 

How Often Should You Use Saline in a Nebulizer?

Depending on what you’re using saline in a nebulizer to treat, how often you should use it will vary. Most people are instructed to use saline in their nebulizer twice a day, 12 hours apart. While this is a general rule, you should always discuss proper use with your physician to ensure you’re using the treatment properly for it to be effective. 

Potential Side Effects

There’s little risk of using saline in a nebulizer to treat lung conditions, but as with every medical treatment, there are always potential side effects. Although rare, these are the sides effects you could have while using saline in your nebulizer: 

  • Chest pain
  • Muscle twitches
  • Problems breathing
  • Hands and feet swelling
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Uneven heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Irritation in your mouth

If you experience any of the above side effects, you should stop treatments and speak with your doctor as soon as possible.

How To Clean a Nebulizer After Using It for Saline

Since using saline in your nebulizer can cause salt deposits to build up, cleaning it after each use is essential. Plus, regular cleaning can help ensure you’re not spreading germs and getting sicker. Luckily, washing and drying your nebulizer isn’t too tricky. 

First, you’ll need to take your nebulizer apart. You might want to refer to the instruction manual to ensure you’re removing all pieces correctly. You’ll need to remove the mask (mouthpiece), the medicine cup, and the tubing. 

You can place the mouthpiece, top piece, and medicine cup on the top shelf of the dishwasher, or you can wash them by hand. If you wash them by hand, always use warm soapy water and rinse thoroughly. You should wash them twice if you’re doing it by hand. 

It’s important to note that you should never submerge the tubing underwater. Submerging the tubing can cause damage. 

Once you’ve washed and rinsed the pieces, you can gently shake them off before setting them in a cool place to dry. They should be perfectly dry the next time you need to use them for treatment. 

This is the best way to clean them after using saline or other medications, but the nebulizer will need a more thorough cleaning about once a week. For this, you’ll need to remove the pieces as you did before. 

After removing the mouthpiece, top piece, and medicine cup, you’ll soak them in a mixture of water and white vinegar for about 30 minutes. This can vary depending on your nebulizer manufacturer. 

You’ll then rinse the pieces with water and let them dry in a cool, dry place. You must wipe down the compressor and outside of the tubing with either a disinfecting wipe or a soapy rag. 

Last but not least, most compressors require an air filter. This air filter needs to be replaced twice a year but can vary depending on who made your nebulizer.

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Discussion Comments
By anon996242 — On Jul 30, 2016

Saline solution + nebulizer (especially battery operated smart one ).

By anon989644 — On Mar 16, 2015

I agree with the effectiveness of saline solution use in a nebulizer. However, there are two very important distinctions.

1) One must use distilled water, using sterile handling procedures, including a sterilized storage container.

Note: If you do use tap water, it must be boiled and again, use sterile handling and storage procedures, including sterilization of pot, tongs, storage container, etc.)

2) Use only non-iodized salt, which is readily available, and in most stores, located next to common iodized table salt. Just be sure to read the label.

By Tibbie — On Mar 02, 2014

Although I have been on Salbutamol four times a day now for just over a year, it wasn't until I invested a nebuliser, that things really started to improve for me, and though up to now I've only been using sterile water, and sometimes I find it very hard fighting for breath at times, I found it quite comforting to use a saline solution instead. The results are very remarkable indeed.

As anon357561 said earlier, he/she was very happy, as I am now. But, there is a shelf life, as with all medicines. I would advise the saline solution be discarded 48 hours after opening, as the salt content quickly falls, thereby making the effect less potent, also the nebuliser may be impaired.

So, after 48 hours, it's best to make up a fresh batch to keep refrigerated for when you need it most. I still use the ventolin when I'm out, but I find that I'm not using it as much as directed, and try not to rely on the 'saline solution' too much before seeking medical help. It's always best to be safe than sorry.

By anon357561 — On Dec 04, 2013

I was always prescribed ventolin and pulmicourt for use with my nebuliser regardless of the medical problem. After a six month cough and struggling to breathe, I changed doctors and was told to just use the saline. It brought up so much mucus but I was clear in less than two days.

By anon341882 — On Jul 15, 2013

I tried this and it was effective for asthma.

By anon281787 — On Jul 25, 2012

I have been using a nebulizer for about a month. I used the albuterol that my doctor prescribed and it helped quite a bit. However, I used homemade saline (purified bottled water and sea salt) last night (albuterol wasn't helping as much as it had). It made me cough quite a bit and I coughed up a lot of mucus. But then I felt markedly better and could breathe so much better than with the albuterol. I am going to try this again tonight.

By Azuza — On Jul 10, 2011

@indmenifyme - I have a nebulizer too and the article is right, they are really hard to clean. I'm almost sold on this saline idea just for the easy clean-up!

By indemnifyme — On Jul 09, 2011

I've had asthma almost my whole life and I've never heard of using saline in a nebulizer. It sounds like it would be a great solution though.

I actually do have a portable nebulizer for use at home so I think I'm going to consult with my doctor about this. I need a new prescription for the medicine that I normally use in the nebulizer so I have to pay her a visit soon anyway!

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