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Inhalers vs. Nebulizers in Delivery of Aerosol Medications

aerosol medications

Aerosol medications are used by individuals with respiratory illnesses, such as asthma. They can be administered in one of two ways – via inhaler or nebulizer. Both methods are designed to deliver quick relief (or fast-acting) and long term control medications directly to the lungs.

But which option is best?

While pitting these breathing aids against each other in a grudge match sounds like fun, it’s also largely unnecessary. Let’s clear the air a bit: Both inhalers and nebulizers have their share of pros and cons, and – as is typical in regards to one’s health – should be merited on a case by case basis.

In This Corner: The Inhaler  

The primary benefits of inhalers are their portability and ease of use.

Metered Dose Inhalers (MDIs) are most commonly prescribed in the U.S. These small, pressurized containers provide a pre-measured dose of medication with each puff. Many have counters to alert the user when their supply is running low.

In pediatrics, inhalers are often used in conjunction with spacers. These hollow plastic tubes make inhalers easier to use for small children and babies, while helping each dose of aerosol medication to reach the lower airwaves. Facemasks, too, are frequently used for small children and infants, who are prone to fidgeting.

There are two additional types of inhalers:

  • Dry Powder Inhaler – Like the name implies, these inhalers administer medication in a powdered form, and require a swift, yet steady inhalation from the user.
  • Soft Mist Inhaler – Newer to the market, SMIs require the user to place their lips around the mouthpiece and gradually inhale to benefit from a pre-measured, slow moving mist.

Inhalers are ideal for sudden flare-ups and/or asthma attacks, and their small size allows them to be carried in a pocket or a purse so they are consistently within reach. However, their size also serves as a minor drawback, as they are far easier to lose track of, resulting in frantic searches.

Weighing In At 4 lbs (give or take): The Nebulizer

Nebulizers, on the other hand, are electric or battery powered devices that turn a liquid medication– such as albuterol – into a fine mist that is subsequently breathed into the lungs via a facemask or mouthpiece. The medication is initially poured into a small reservoir attached to tubing prior to powering up the nebulizer.

Nebulizers are often bulky, somewhat heavy pieces of machinery that generate monotonous buzzing or whirring noises. Their adaptability, however, makes them a hospital mainstay. Nebulizers require no effort from a child, other than remaining still. This comes in handy for parents, who can administer treatments to children while they sleep.

The duration of nebulizer treatments is significantly longer than an inhaler, however. Whereas a puff from an MDI takes mere seconds, nebulizer treatments can last anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes.

In short, nebulizers and inhalers are equally efficient at providing aerosol medications where they are needed: the lungs. Deciding between the two is largely dependent upon the individual, the situation, the doctor’s orders, and insurance coverage.

Note: Not all aerosol medications are the same. Some are short-term, some are long-term. Bronchodilators, such as albuterol, relax the muscles around the airways. They are the most common, and are used by almost all people who have asthma for relief of sudden symptoms. Inhaled corticosteroids, such as Pulmicort, are used to ease swelling in the air passages.

It is critical that you and your children understand the purpose of your prescription, the correct dosage, and how much you have left. If you have questions about respiratory illness and the best means of treatment – inhaler or nebulizer – contact one of the specialists at KinderMender.

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