Using an Incentive Spirometer

An incentive spirometer is a device that helps you do deep breathing exercises after surgery. Or it helps lower the risk for breathing problems if you have a lung disease or condition. These exercises expand your lungs, aid in circulation, and may help prevent pneumonia. Deep breathing exercises also help you breathe better and improve the function of your lungs by:

  • Keeping your lungs clear

  • Strengthening your breathing muscles

  • Helping prevent respiratory complications or problems

The incentive spirometer gives you a way to take an active part in your recovery. A nurse or respiratory therapist will teach you breathing exercises. To do these exercises, you will breathe in through your mouth and not your nose. The incentive spirometer only works correctly if you breathe in through your mouth.

Man in hospital bed using incentive spirometer.
Deep breathing expands the lungs, aids circulation, and helps prevent pneumonia.

Your healthcare provider or their staff will tell you how to use the device, your targeted volume(s), and provide other helpful tips to prevent complications (such as pain, dizziness, feeling lightheaded) when blowing in the incentive spirometer.

Steps to clear lungs

Step 1. Exhale normally. Then, inhale normally.

  • Relax and breathe out.

Step 2. Place your lips tightly around the mouthpiece.

  • Make sure the device is upright and not tilted.

  • Sit up and breathe out (exhale) fully

  • Tightly seal your lips around the mouthpiece

Step 3. Inhale as much air as you can through the mouthpiece. Don't breathe through your nose.

  • Breathe in (inhale) slowly and deeply.

  • Hold your breath long enough to keep the balls, piston, or disk raised for at least 3 to 5seconds, or as instructed by your healthcare provider.

  • Exhale slowly to allow the balls, piston, or disk to fall before repeating again.

Note: Some spirometers have an indicator to let you know that you are breathing in too fast. If the indicator goes off, breathe in more slowly.

Step 4. Repeat the exercise regularly.

  • Do sets of 10 exercises every hour while you're awake, or as instructed by your healthcare provider. Don't do more than 30 breaths in each set.

  • If you were taught deep breathing and coughing exercises, do them regularly as instructed by your provider, nurse, or respiratory therapist.

Follow-up care

Make a follow-up appointment, or as directed by your healthcare provider. Also follow up with your provider as advised if your symptoms don't improve or continue to get worse.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Fever 100.4° (38°C) or higher, or as advised by your provider

  • Brownish, bloody, or smelly sputum (phlegm that you cough up)

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur: 

  • Shortness of breath that doesn't get better after taking your medicine

  • Cool, moist, pale, or blue skin

  • Trouble breathing or swallowing, wheezing

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Feeling of dizziness or weakness, or a sudden drop in blood pressure

  • Feeling very ill

  • Lightheadedness

  • Chest pain or rapid heart rate

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: David A Kaufman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2022
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.