Here's information that will help you weigh the pros and cons of different asthma inhalers.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

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 can help you get the right dose of medication to prevent or treat asthma attacks.

There are two main types of asthma 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.

One type of metered dose inhaler releases medication automatically when you inhale. Some metered dose inhalers have counters so that you know how many doses remain. If there's no counter, you'll need to track the number of doses you've used to tell when the inhaler's low on medication.

In some situations, such as for children or older adults, using an asthma spacer with an inhaler may be helpful. A spacer holds medication in a tube between the inhaler and your mouth after it's released, making it easier to inhale the full dose.

Releasing the medication into the spacer gives you time to inhale more slowly, decreasing the amount of medicine that's left on the back of your throat and increasing the amount that reaches your lungs.

One type of inhaler has a built-in spacer. Others can be used with a separate spacer that attaches to the inhaler.

These inhalers don't use a chemical propellant to push the medication out of the inhaler. Instead, the medication is released by breathing in a deep, fast breath. Available types include a dry powder tube inhaler, a powder disk inhaler and a single-dose powder disk inhaler.

Choosing the asthma inhaler that best meets your needs depends on several factors, including method of delivery and the type of medication you need. Some medications are available only with certain inhaler types. The chart below can help you understand the pros and cons of each type.

Asthma inhaler features
Metered dose inhaler Metered dose inhaler with a spacer Dry powder inhaler
Small and convenient to carry. Less convenient to carry than a metered dose inhaler without a spacer. Small and convenient to carry.
Doesn't require a deep, fast inhaled breath. Doesn't require a deep, fast inhaled breath. Requires a deep, fast inhaled breath.
Accidently breathing out a little isn't a problem. Accidently breathing out a little isn't a problem. Accidently breathing out a little can blow away the medication.
Some inhalers require coordinating your breath with medication release. A spacer makes it easier to coordinate your breath with medication release. Doesn't require coordinating your breath with medication release.
Can result in medication on the back of your throat and tongue. Less medication settles on the back of your throat and tongue. Can result in medication on the back of your throat and tongue.
Some models don't show how many doses remain. Some models don't show how many doses remain. It's clear when the device is running out of medication.
Requires shaking and priming. Requires shaking and priming and correct use of the spacer. Single-dose models require loading capsules for each use.
Humidity doesn't affect medication. Humidity doesn't affect medication. High humidity can cause medication to clump.
Use of a cocking device generally isn't necessary. Use of a cocking device generally isn't necessary. May require dexterity to use a cocking device.

Some people are unable to use a standard metered dose inhaler or dry powder inhaler and need another device to get asthma medication. These include:

  • Metered dose inhaler with a face mask. A face mask is generally needed for infants or small children. It uses a standard metered dose inhaler with a spacer. The face mask attaches to the spacer and is sized to fit tightly over the nose and mouth to make sure the right dose of medication reaches the lungs.
  • Nebulizer. A nebulizer is a device that turns asthma medication into a fine mist that's breathed in through a mouthpiece or mask worn over the nose and mouth. A nebulizer is generally reserved 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 any trouble using your inhaler or it seems like you're not getting a full dose of medication.

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

May 09, 2015