Incentive Spirometer vs Spirometry

You’re not alone if you’ve ever been confused about chronic lung disease jargon.

When your doctor prescribes a treatment or test, ask him or her to explain it to you if you don’t understand anything. Asking questions is an important step you can take to manage your lung condition proactively.

Today, I’ll explain the difference between 2 terms that sound similar but aren’t the same thing: an incentive spirometer and spirometry. 


Spirometry is a type of pulmonary function test (PFT) performed in your doctor’s office.

It’s the most commonly used diagnostic tool for diagnosing chronic lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis, and chronic asthma.

A spirometry test aims to measure how much air you can inhale and exhale and how quickly you can exhale.

A spirometry test documents 2 measurements:

  • Forced vital capacity (FVC): The total amount of air you can exhale from your lungs
  • Forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1): The amount of air you can exhale in the first second of the test

During the test, you’ll be asked to blow into a mouthpiece as hard as you can for several seconds.

The mouthpiece connects to a spirometer machine, which will document and graph your FVC and FEV1 results.

These measurements help your doctor determine how well your lungs are functioning. If you have chronic lung disease, you’ll probably have regular spirometry tests so your doctor can track the progression of your disease and how effective your current treatments are.

Incentive Spirometer

An incentive spirometer is a small device used as a breathing tool to exercise and clear out your lungs. It has 2 primary purposes:

  • To clear out fluid and germs from your lungs that can lead to an infection like pneumonia
  • To help you breathe deeply and fully inflate the lungs, which helps move oxygen-rich blood throughout the body

While using an incentive spirometer, you’ll inhale slowly and deeply into a mouthpiece that connects to an air chamber.

As you inhale, a disc or piston will move up inside the air chamber. Numbers on the side of the chamber will let you know how much air you’re breathing in.

When you reach your limit, you’ll remove the mouthpiece, hold your breath for at least 3 seconds and then exhale normally. Repeat these steps 10 to 12 times an hour or as often as your doctor prescribes.

For an incentive spirometer, the focus is on breathing slowly and deeply to fill up your lungs. Document the highest levels you reach each round to track your progress each time you use it.