With whom would you like to chat?
A LIVE Oxygen Specialist:

Customer Service:


Breathing Treatment: Pharmaceutical Treatments for Lung Disease

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with chronic lung disease, you will be learning about a variety of drugs for lung disease and other breathing treatment. With all the new information, you might find yourself wondering, “What are breathing treatments used for?” When it comes to breathing treatment meds, it is helpful to know the basics so you understand the various types and pharmaceutical treatment and how they are used.

What Are Breathing Treatments Used For?

There are two classes of medications most commonly used to treat chronic lung diseases: Bronchodilators and steroids. These drugs for lung disease often treat symptoms associated with COPD and other breathing problems like breathlessness and inflamed airways. Asthma patients may also use these breathing treatment medications to combat acute and long-term symptoms. Both types of breathing treatment meds are used to help you breathe better, but they work in very different ways.

Breathing Treatment: Types of Bronchodilators

For the most part, bronchodilators are either given “as needed” to temporarily relieve acute symptoms, or more regularly for persistent breathing problems. Think of this breathing medicine as a muscle relaxant that works on your airways. You have muscles in your chest that affect the diameter and rigidity of your breathing tubes, so relaxing them allows you to breathe easier and deeper. Bronchodilators do just that, relaxing your airways with the medicine to help you breathe better. There are three kinds of bronchodilators, and your doctor will prescribe the best breathing medicine for your situation.

Beta2 Antagonists

These breathing treatment meds can be taken as a pill or, more commonly, inhaled for faster results. Some types of this breathing medicine work very fast, while others can take 20 minutes to kick in. Fast-acting breathing treatment formulations are perfect to use before an activity that may cause difficulty breathing. There are also 12-hour breathing treatment formulations that are taken twice a day to manage conditions like COPD around the clock. Speak with your doctor about side effects for the particular pharmaceutical treatment you are prescribed. Xopenex (levalbuterol) and Proventil (albuterol) are two kinds of beta2 antagonists.


These types of bronchodilators are inhaled only, and can be short or long lasting. An important thing to note with these kinds of breathing treatment meds is that they do not work as quickly as beta2 antagonists, so they are not to be used for acute symptoms. They do have fewer side effects, however, and you may be prescribed both an anticholinergic breathing medicine and a beta2 antagonist breathing medicine together to combat your symptoms as effectively as possible for any given situation. Atrovent and Spiriva are two brands of anticholinergics.


This is an older class of breathing treatment medication that is not in use as much anymore for people suffering from COPD. Taken in pill form, there are also short- and long-lasting formulations of theophylline, but no fast-acting formula. Your doctor will have to monitor the levels of the drug in your blood very carefully, because these drugs for lung disease can cause serious side effects if those levels get too high. Your doctor will go over these side effects with you and, as with any pharmaceutical treatments, you should seek medical advice immediately if you encounter any problems. Truxophyllin and Theolair are two kinds of theophylline.

Additional Drugs for Lung Disease

People with lung disease experience a number of symptoms beyond difficulty breathing. For patients experiencing other symptoms, there are additional pharmaceutical treatments that may be prescribed.


Many COPD patients experience swelling and fluid retention, particularly in the ankles. If you also suffer from heart failure, fluid can collect in the lungs as well. This tends to happen during bouts with acute bronchitis. Since steroid treatments can actually cause fluid retention, one of the drugs for lung disease that is often prescribed is a diuretic to help your kidneys get rid of these excess fluids. Lasix and Aldactone are two brands of diuretics that you may be given to help you breathe better.


In some cases, you may be prescribed antibiotic breathing treatment to deal with an acute bacterial infection that results in severe symptoms of chronic bronchitis. Note that antibiotic breathing medicine only works for these kinds of infections, and not for viral infections. Typically, these are the same kinds of antibiotics you have probably taken before; however, they are not an effective breathing medicine for treating symptoms of COPD over a long-term period of time. Commonly used brands include Augmentin, Zithromax, and Avelox.


People who suffer from asthma use many of the same drugs for lung disease, like bronchodilators and corticosteroids, as people who suffer from COPD. However there are some other kinds of breathing treatment medications available to asthma patients, depending on how severe your breathing difficulties are.

  1. Leukotriene Inhibitors: These breathing treatment meds are often used in combination with an inhaled steroid in order to avoid using an oral steroid. They work by blocking the chemicals that your body generates when it is exposed to something that triggers your asthma, resulting in fewer attacks. Singulair is one common leukotriene inhibitor.
  2. Monoclonal Antibodies: This is the newest kind of asthma medicine to help you breathe better, and is used in more severe cases where inhaled steroids are not sufficient. This kind of breathing treatment is injected intravenously, and works by reducing the amount of allergy-causing chemicals released by the body when it comes into contact with a trigger substance. Xolair is currently the only drug in this category.
  3. Mast Cell Inhibitors: These mild drugs prevent the symptoms of allergies, such as runny nose and itchy eyes, as well as asthmatic reactions to allergies. Mostly used seasonally for people with milder asthma, these are typically inhaled and work by blocking the release of histamine in your body. Intal and Tilade are two kinds of mast cell inhibitors.


For cystic fibrosis patients, or some COPD patients where excess mucus production is a major problem, your doctor may prescribe mucus-thinning medications called mucolytics. These drugs for lung disease make the excess mucus less sticky and easier to expel, thus helping you to breathe better. These come in tablet or liquid form. Many people have allergic reactions to these breathing treatment meds, so speak with your doctor thoroughly before trying these products. Mucomyst is one kind of mucolytic medicine currently on the market.


For people using inhaled bronchodilators and steroids to treat their lung disorder, there are two primary devices used to administer the breathing treatment medicine. One is an inhaler, very common for asthma patients and very easy to use. The other is a nebulizer, used in conjunction with liquid formulations of certain kinds of medication.

breathing treatment


These small, pocket-sized devices usually come in metered doses. A small canister is inserted into the mechanism and, when shaken and pressed, releases vaporized breathing medicine to be inhaled through the mouthpiece. Inhalers come in many shapes and sizes, but most work the same way:

  • Take the cap off and shake the inhaler
  • Breathe out
  • Put the mouthpiece in your mouth and press the canister down as you start to inhale
  • Hold your breath for several seconds to make sure that the medicine has a chance to penetrate your airways
  • Repeat if necessary or if instructed by your doctor


These machines deliver liquid medicine to your lungs and airways in the form of a mist. By forcing air through the liquid, the breathing medicine is broken up and propelled into your lungs. You will need to wear a mask or mouthpiece to use this breathing treatment device.

breathing treatment nebulizer

  • Plug the nebulizer in to a grounded electrical outlet
  • Carefully measure and pour the correct dose of medication into the nebulizer cup
  • Put the top on the cup and connect the mask or mouthpiece
  • Connect the tubing
  • Turn on the compressor on the nebulizer
  • Sit up straight and put on the mask or mouthpiece
  • Take deep, slow breaths and let the medicine reach deep into your airways
  • Continue until the medicine is gone; clean the nebulizer after each use

So, what are breathing treatments used for? The majority of the breathing treatments described above include medicine to help you breathe better, easing the symptoms that cause difficulty breathing. In addition, other drugs for lung disease can help treat the symptoms associated with chronic lung disorders. If you are living with lung disease, talk to your doctor about which drugs for lung disease might help you. In addition, ask about other treatments, like oxygen therapy. If you have questions about oxygen therapy breathing treatment, contact Inogen today to learn more.

Frequently Asked Questions: Breathing Treatment

How do you know if you need a breathing treatment?

Your doctor will decide if you should have a prescription for breathing medicine. However, once you have a prescription, you may be responsible for deciding when you need a breathing treatment, depending on your breathing treatment meds. Your doctor will give you guidance on how much and how frequently to use your breathing medicine, but inhaler and nebulizer drugs for lung disease are typically taken as needed. You will begin to recognize symptoms and signs that indicate you need a breathing treatment, including wheezing, shortness of breath or coughing. However, it is a good idea to ask your doctor to give you a list of warning signs so that you feel prepared.

How often can I take a breathing treatment?

That varies with each medication, and can vary depending on how the breathing medicine is administered. As such, it is important to follow your doctor’s instructions in regards to frequency of use. Some breathing treatments can be dangerous if used too often, so make sure you speak with your doctor about the limits of use for your particular breathing treatment meds.

How long does a breathing treatment last?

That depends entirely on your breathing treatment meds, your prescription, the flow on your nebulizer and your unique illness. The average nebulizer treatment takes about 10 minutes, but could take up to 20 minutes with certain breathing treatment meds. Inhaler treatments are almost instant. How quickly an oral pharmaceutical treatment depends entirely upon that particular medication formulation. Talk with your doctor about how long inhaled treatments will take, as well as how long you should expect to wait before oral medications are effective.

How do breathing treatments help?

Breathing treatments help you breathe better by turning medication into a mist and allowing it to enter your lungs via inhaler or nebulizer. Because the medicine is delivered in an inhaled mist, the medication is able to reach your respiratory system quickly. Often, the medicines used in breathing treatments are bronchodilators, which open the airways and allow the patient to get more air in their lungs and breathe easier, and also makes the medication more effective. There are both short-acting and long-acting types of bronchodilators, each of which are used for different purposes. The short-acting types of bronchodilators offer fast relief for acute management of symptoms. The long-acting types of bronchodilators are used each day to prevent attacks and reduce the frequency of symptoms. Depending on the types of bronchodilators used and the lung condition being treated, breathing treatments help by offering quick relief, or by providing maintenance medicine to make breathing easier overall. It is important to talk to your doctor about how to use your breathing treatments correctly, including frequency of use and how quickly you can expect the treatment to help. You should also be clear on when to seek medical attention if your breathing treatment is not providing adequate relief. 

Can a nebulizer be used without medicine?

Most of the time, nebulizers are used with breathing treatment medication, including different types of bronchodilators or corticosteroids. These medications help reduce inflammation, swelling and irritation in your airways and lungs so you can breathe better, and because a nebulizer creates a finer mist, the medication is more likely to be inhaled properly. However, traditional medicine is not always necessary for a nebulizer to provide therapeutic benefits. There is evidence that using a nebulizer with hypertonic saline, and no other medication, can help increase lung function and decrease the frequency of lung infections in some patients by thinning out the mucus in the airways. This not only makes breathing easier, but makes it less likely that an infection can make a patient’s condition worse. These benefits can be extremely helpful for many patients with lung conditions, so if you are using a nebulizer for your breathing issues, ask your doctor whether nebulized hypertonic saline could help treat your symptoms. As with all other medical interventions, it is important that you only use nebulized hypertonic saline under the care of a doctor and only use the saline solution prescribed by your doctor. Since you are inhaling mist from the nebulizer directly into your lungs, it is also essential that you clean your nebulizer after each use and disinfect it properly after every other treatment. Without proper cleaning and disinfecting, the nebulizer can easily grow bacteria, germs or even mold, which would be dangerous to inhale.  

Will I feel pain with breathing treatments?

Breathing treatments should not cause any pain at all. While you may experience discomfort as a result of your breathing difficulties, the breathing treatments are made to help ease those symptoms. If you experience any pain while receiving your breathing treatments or immediately following them, let your doctor know right away. Never use a breathing treatment more than recommended.

What are the risks and potential complications of breathing treatments?

Breathing treatments are typically safe for the majority of users, unless there is an allergy or the medications have been used more than recommended. Discomfort or signs of an allergic reaction, including hives, rash, additional difficulty breathing or chest tightness, should be reported to your doctor immediately. If the signs of an allergic reaction are severe or continue to progress, call 911. Make sure you share all allergies with your doctor to reduce the likelihood of a reaction. Sometimes, breathing treatments can cause side effects, which should also be discussed with your doctor. If you experience the following side effects when using your breathing treatments as recommended, talk to your doctor about trying different types of bronchodilators or breathing treatment medications. 

  • Anxiety
  • Bad taste in the mouth
  • Coughing as a result of a dry, irritated throat
  • Decreased sense of smell or taste
  • Diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling jittery or trembling
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Headache
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased nasal congestion
  • Restlessness [1]

What happens if you use an inhaler and don’t need it?

It is important that you use your breathing treatments only as described. All medications come with risks if used incorrectly, and regardless of the types of bronchodilators or breathing treatments you use, using medications differently than directed can cause complications. Using an inhaler when you do not need it increases your risk of experiencing side effects and complications. If you are unsure when to use your inhaler, talk to your doctor to clarify the right time to use it. However, do not hesitate to use a medication when you need it. It is important that you not overuse any medication or use it incorrectly, but it is just as important that you use the medication properly when your health demands it. Any questions about how to use your medication can and should be answered by your health care team.

How do I prepare for my breathing treatment?

Prepare for your breathing treatment by making sure you are well informed and prepared to administer your breathing treatments confidently. Start by asking your health care team for clear, step-by-step instructions on how to properly administer your breathing treatment. Make sure you write everything down, or ask them to print out a copy of instructions for you. It is also important that you know what to expect during and after your treatment. Ask about any sensations to expect, as well as how to tell if you are doing your treatment correctly. If you are trying new types of bronchodilators, ask how they differ from any kind you used previously. Talk to your doctor about how to troubleshoot issues with equipment if it seems like it is not working properly. Lastly, make sure you know how to tell if your breathing treatment is not working, and what you should do at that point. Make sure you know who to contact for more information. There is a small learning curve when using new breathing treatments, but being prepared will help you get used to the process as quickly as possible. 


[1] Spader, Catherine. “Breathing Treatments.” Healthgrades, 5 Sept. 2019, www.healthgrades.com/right-care/lungs-breathing-and-respiration/breathing-treatments.

Additional sources

  • https://www.healthline.com/health/breathing-treatment
  • https://copd.net/clinical/breathing-treatments/
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/breathing-treatment
  • https://www.medicinenet.com/bronchodilators_for_asthma/article.htm
View all of our Inogen One Systems   See what Inogen One customers are saying  

Inogen Call For Support View Cart
Request a FREE Info Kit