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airplane with a nebulizer for a wing

How Does A Nebulizer Work? 

So, I’m in an airplane. Somehow I usually wind up sitting above the wing. As we’re taking off, I’m looking at the wing, and this reminds me of a question I’m often asked: “How do nebulizers work?”

The physics of nebulizers

I know what you’re thinking now: What do airplanes have to do with nebulizers? Well, there’s a law of physics that applies to both. It’s called the “Bernoulli Effect.”

Allow me to explain. I will begin with airplanes and segue to nebulizers. Trust me, this will all make sense in a moment.

A quick definition is in order here. When water flows through a small opening, a negative pressure is created alongside the stream. This effect was first described by Daniel Bernoulli, an 18th-century scientist.

This principle, called the Bernoulli Principle, is how nebulizers work. But, it can also be applied to the flow of air. The wings of an airplane are shaped in a specific way. It’s so that, as the plane starts moving fast, and as air passes over the wing, a negative pressure is created. It’s this negative pressure that creates lift.

This is how planes are able to take off.

So how does a nebulizer work for asthma?

This same principle works for nebulizers. So, you put your nebulizer solutions in the nebulizer cup. The bottom of the cup has a small opening where oxygen tubing is attached. The tubing is also connected to a flow source, such as a nebulizer air compressor. This is what most people use at home. It may also be an oxygen flow meter connected to piped-in oxygen or oxygen tank, which is what is usually used in hospitals.

As a flow of air passes through the small opening, this creates a stream of air that runs through the solution. The flow is fast enough to create negative pressure around the stream. It is this negative pressure that sucks the solution into the stream.

And this is what creates the mist.

This concept was utilized by many nebulizer inventors of the 19th century. It was well known that a mist was ideal for inhaling asthma medicines. The problem these old nebulizers had was that they lacked electricity. So, they had to be operated by hand.

The beginning of the nebulizer

In 1856, Sales-Giron invented the first mist nebulizer. It was an awkward-looking device. It was operated by similar to how you peddle a bicycle. Using your hands, you cranked the pumps that created the mist. This device banged the solution against a metal disc to create the mist. It worked similar to water from a waterfall creating a mist by banging against rocks.

This type of mist was not ideal, as it was not easy to produce. The idea of using the Bernoulli Effect to create a nebulizer was first contrived by a doctor named Mathieu. He created what became known as Mathieu’s Nephogene.

Other doctors improved this nebulizer. The main problem with all of these nebulizers is that they were all operated by hand. This was troublesome, as it made it too hard to create a mist. This was especially true for asthmatics who couldn’t breathe well to begin with.

The evolution of the nebulizer

A rubber squeeze bulb could create the flow another way. The bulb was attached to the bottom of the nebulizer cup. When the bulb was squeezed, it created a mist.

This was the system utilized beginning in the early 1900s when epinephrine was discovered. A mist allowed asthmatics to inhale the medicine. This system could be used in the doctor’s office or at home. But, again, it took a lot of work and time to get an effective dose.

The old nebulizers were nice for a time. However, they were far from ideal. And this all changed in the 1930s with the invention of the electronic nebulizer air compressors.

Progression to electric nebulizers

The first electric nebulizer was called the “Pneumostat.” It was a bulky, metal machine painted black. A black rubber mask was attached to the top. You placed your face over the mask, turned on the device, and inhaled the mist. Later designs have tubing between the machine and the mask. This made it easier to inhale the mist.

For years physicians searched for a way to allow asthmatics to inhale medicine. This way the medicine could be directly applied to airways where it’s needed. Today there are many brands of nebulizers. Some are of the table-top design and are less expensive. Others are small enough to hold in your hands and are portable.

How do you feel about your nebulizer? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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