How To Use an Incentive Spirometer

If you have COPD or asthma, this tool may help strengthen your lungs

incentive spirometer
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An incentive spirometer is a medical device commonly used after surgery or with certain lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, pneumonia or asthma to help keep your lungs healthy.

The device helps retrain your lungs how to take slow deep breaths, which following surgery or a COPD exacerbation may be too painful to do on your own.

As the incentive spirometer measures how well your lungs fill up with each breath, it also helps you to exercise your lungs to help keep your alveoli — the air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged — inflated.

Before You Get Started

To use an incentive spirometer, you will need the equipment, which comes in a few different models ranging in price from under $20 to over $100. You may require a doctor’s prescription for insurance reimbursement.

Your doctor or respiratory therapist will direct you in how frequently and for how long you should use the spirometer, but typically they are used for approximately 10 minutes every 1 to 2 hours while you are awake.

If you have a chest or abdomen incision, holding a pillow tightly against your incision while inhaling may reduce the discomfort.

Using an Incentive Spirometer

To use the incentive spirometer, sit upright in a comfortable position, such as in a comfortable chair or the side of your bed.

Hold the incentive spirometer upright, with both hands. Slide the indicator (located in the left-hand column when you are facing the spirometer) to the desired level.

For example, start at 1250 milliliters and slowly increase as your treatment progresses.

Place the mouthpiece into your mouth and tightly seal your lips around it. Then breathe in slowly and as deeply as possible. The piston that is resting below the indicator should now rise toward the top of the column.

Hold your breath for at least 3 seconds to allow the piston to fall back to the bottom of the column.

If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, take a break. Remove the spirometer mouthpiece and take a few normal breaths before continuing.

If you do not reach your goal, do not get discouraged. You will improve with practice and as you heal.

After each set of deep breathing, cough to help clear your airways of mucus. Rest for a few seconds and repeat.

Some discomfort is to be expected as you work to strengthen your lungs. Be sure to always follow the instructions of your doctor or respiratory therapist, and if you have any questions or concerns do not hesitate to contact his or her office.


Using an incentive spirometer. U.S. National Library of Medicine website. Updated February 8, 2014. Accessed February 11, 2016.

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