Inhalers and nebulizers are two different devices used to get rescue or controller medications directly into your lungs. Most teens with asthma will use an inhaler, but sometimes a nebulizer might be used, too.
Nebulizers are electric- or battery-powered machines that turn liquid asthma medicine into a fine mist that the person then inhales into the lungs. Babies and younger kids often use nebulizers because they don't have to do anything — just sit in one place and receive the medicine.
Nebulizers take at least 5 or 10 minutes to deliver the medicine — sometimes even longer. They can be somewhat bulky and noisy and might not be that easy to carry around.
Inhalers are portable, handheld devices that are small enough to carry in a pocket, purse, or backpack.
Metered dose inhalers (MDI) are the most commonly prescribed type of asthma inhaler. Like mini-aerosol cans, these devices push out a premeasured spray of medicine. When the person squeezes the inhaler, a measured puff of medicine is released. Some MDIs have counters that indicate how many doses remain. If there's no counter, the number of doses already used should be tracked, so that the inhaler can be replaced before it empties.
Metered dose inhalers require a person to coordinate squeezing the inhaler and inhaling the medicine into the lungs. Sometimes with a MDI, the medicine will reach the back of the throat but not get down into the lower airways, which is where it needs to go to be effective.
Inhalers are easier to use, and more effective, if you use a spacer. A spacer is a kind of holding chamber that attaches to the inhaler. From that chamber, you can inhale the medicine slowly when you're ready. Spacers eliminate the need to coordinate the squeeze you give the inhaler to release the medicine and the moment you take a deep breath.
Spacers also help to deliver medicine right into the lungs where it belongs, instead of into the mouth or throat. When using a spacer, it usually takes only a couple of minutes or less to get the medicine into your lungs.
Dry powder inhalers deliver medicine in powder form, but it does not spray out. The person must do more of the work by inhaling the powdered medicine quickly and quite forcefully.
Whichever device your doctor recommends, learn how to use it properly so you get the medicine into your lungs. During an office visit, your doctor might ask you to take a puff from your inhaler to see if the medicine is getting to where it's needed.
Taking your asthma medicine properly can both prevent flare-ups from happening and keep a flare-up from getting really bad.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011
Originally reviewed by: Nicole Green, MD