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Asthma inhalers: Which one's right for you?

Updated: 07-09-2020

Asthma inhalers are hand-held, portable devices that deliver medication to your lungs. A variety of asthma inhalers are available to help control asthma symptoms. Finding the right one and using it correctly can help you get the medication you need to prevent or treat asthma attacks.

To find the best inhaler for you, you need to find a balance between the correct medication and the type of inhaler that suits your needs and your ability to use the inhaler correctly. Training from your doctor or other health care provider is essential for learning to use the device you choose correctly.

Metered dose inhalers

These inhalers consist of a pressurized canister containing medication that fits into a boot-shaped plastic mouthpiece. With most metered dose inhalers, medication is released by pushing the canister into the boot.

Some types of metered dose inhalers release medication automatically when you inhale. A few metered dose inhalers have built-in dose counters so that you know how many doses remain. Some newer devices use wireless technology to help you count doses by allowing you to track them with an app downloaded to your phone.

If your metered dose inhaler doesn't have a counter, you'll need to track the number of doses you've used or purchase a separate electronic dose counter to tell when the inhaler is low on medication.

For some people, such as for children or older adults, using a spacer or valved holding chamber with an inhaler might make it easier to inhale the full dose. A spacer holds medication in a tube between the inhaler and your mouth after it's released. A valved holding chamber is a specialized spacer with a one-way valve to help regulate the flow of medication.

Releasing the medication into the spacer allows you to inhale more slowly, increasing the amount that reaches your lungs. Spacers and holding chambers require a prescription.

Dry powder inhaler

Rather than a chemical propellant to push the medication out of the inhaler, you release the medication in these inhalers by breathing in a deep, fast breath. There are multiple dose devices, which hold up to 200 doses, and single dose devices, which you fill with a capsule before each treatment.

Soft mist inhaler

Soft mist inhalers are propellant-free devices that are slightly larger than conventional metered dose inhalers. These devices release a low-velocity aerosol mist that can be slowly inhaled over a longer period of time than metered dose and dry powder inhalers. Soft mist inhalers can be used with a valved holding chamber or a face mask in children.

Other devices

Some people can't use a standard metered dose inhaler or dry powder inhaler. Other types include:

  • Metered dose inhaler with a face mask. Generally used for infants or small children, this type uses a standard metered dose inhaler with a spacer. The face mask, which attaches to the spacer, fits over the nose and mouth to make sure the right dose of medication reaches the lungs.
  • Nebulizer. This device turns asthma medication into a fine mist breathed in through a mouthpiece or mask worn over the nose and mouth. A nebulizer is generally used for people who can't use an inhaler, such as infants, young children, people who are very ill or people who need large doses of medication.

Work with your doctor to determine which type of inhaler will work best for you. Have your doctor, pharmacist or other health provider show you how to use it.

Using your inhaler correctly is critical in ensuring you get the correct dose of medication to keep your asthma under control. Talk to your doctor if you're having trouble using your inhaler, or if it seems like you're not getting enough medication.

Replace your inhaler if it has passed its expiration date or it shows that all the doses have been used.