Most asthma medication is inhaled: it’s the fastest and most direct way to get medication into your airways where it can do its work. There are several ways to get it there. The two most common delivery devices are asthma inhalers and asthma nebulizers.
Most people are probably familiar with inhalers already: the small, handheld devices that the user presses to spray a quick burst of medication into the mouth.
Nebulizers medication is less well known, in part because devices are larger so are so are less likely to be used in public (though there are plenty of portable options available).
So what are the differences, and how do you know which one is right for you?
Inhalers have some obvious advantages. They are small, easy to carry around and provide a metered dose: press the button once and you get the right amount of medication. They are particularly suitable when you’re on the go as they can easily be carried in a purse or pocket.
But they do have some drawbacks. They can be difficult to use correctly as they require you to press the button and breathe in deeply at just the right time. That might sound relatively easy, but one study found that just 5% of medical staff were able to instruct patients how to use their inhalers perfectly.
Inhalers also rely on the user being able to take a sufficiently large breath to inhale all the medication, and deposit it deep in the airways. That can be a challenge for young children and the elderly, and for many adults who suffer a wide range of illnesses from emphysema to bronchitis. As a result, insufficient medication is delivered to the airways where it's needed, limiting its effectiveness.
Nebulizers work differently from inhalers. They use electricity to create a fine mist which is inhaled through a mask or mouthpiece slowly, typically over a period of five minutes or so.
While this takes longer, it means that it is much easier to use correctly than an inhaler, increasing the likelihood of the correct dose reaching the lungs.
It’s suitable for anyone, but especially useful for small children, elderly or the very ill who may find it to coordinate deep breaths needed by an inhaler.
Nebulizers are larger than inhalers so they tend to be kept in one place (such as a home or office) though smaller battery-operated nebulizers are available.
Which one is right for me?
Whether an inhaler or a nebulizer is more suitable for you depends on your circumstances. If you are capable of using an inhaler correctly and you are on the go a lot then carrying an inhaler with you may be a sensible choice.
On the other hand, if you are not travelling frequently or if you or the asthma patient struggles to use an inhaler correctly, or you need a more prolonged use of mediation, a nebulizer may be more suitable.
Your healthcare professional will be able to advise on what best suits your situation and lifestyle. It’s also quite possible to have both: a nebulizer at home or at work (or to carry with you when you can) and an inhaler for emergencies or when you need to travel light.
Whichever method is right for you, remember that you should always take your medication as prescribed.