Northside Health Library

Using an incentive spirometer


An incentive spirometer is a device used to help you keep your lungs healthy while they are healing. The incentive spirometer teaches you how to take slow deep breaths.

After surgery, it may be too painful to take deep breaths. You may also feel too weak to take deep breaths. When you do not breathe deeply enough, this can lead to sick lungs. 

By using the incentive spirometer every 1 - 2 hours, or as directed by your nurse or doctor, you can take an active role in your recovery and keep your lungs healthy. 

How to Use an Incentive Spirometer

Sit up and hold the incentive spirometer upright.           

  • Place the mouthpiece of the incentive spirometer into your mouth. Make sure you make a good seal with your lips.
  • Breathe out (exhale) normally.        
  • Breathe in SLOWLY (Inhale slowly).

 A piece in the incentive spirometer will rise as you take a breath in. 

  • Try to get this piece to rise as high as you can. 
  • Usually, there is a marker placed by your health care provider that tells you how big of a breath you should take.

Another, smaller piece in the incentive spirometer looks like a ball or disc. 

  • Make sure this ball stays in the middle of the chamber while you breathe in.
  • If you breathe in too fast, the ball will shoot to the top.
  • If you breathe in too slowly, the ball with stay at the bottom.

Hold your breath for a few (3 - 5) seconds, then slowly release your breath and exhale.

Repeat 10 - 15 breaths every 1 - 2 hours or as instructed by your nurse or doctor.

Other Tips

  • You may need to hold a pillow tightly to your belly while breathing in. This will help ease any discomfort.
  • You may not be achieving the number marked for you, but don’t get discouraged. This will improve with practice and as your body heals.
  • If you start to get dizzy or light-headed, slow down and take some normal breaths in between using the incentive spirometer.


James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Department of Respiratory Therapy. How to Use an Incentive. Columbus: James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Department of Respiratory Therapy, 2009. Print.

Review Date: 2/26/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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