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Treatment & Prevention

What’s the Difference Between a Nebulizer and an Inhaler?

Inhalers and nebulizers are two different ways to get asthma medicines directly into the lungs. Most teens with asthma will use an inhaler.


Inhalers are handheld devices that deliver medicine. They’re small enough to carry in a pocket, purse, or backpack. There are a couple of different kinds:

Metered Dose Inhalers (MDIs)

This is the kind of inhaler doctors prescribe most for teens. MDIs work a bit like mini-aerosol cans. When the person squeezes the inhaler, it releases a measured puff of medicine.

Some MDIs have counters that show how many doses are left in the inhaler. If you use an MDI that doesn’t have a counter, you need to keep track of the number of puffs taken. That’s important because inhalers spray even when there’s no medicine left. Writing down the number of puffs helps you know when it’s time to get a new inhaler.

With an MDI, you need to squeeze the inhaler and breathe the medicine into the lungs right away. If you don’t breathe in at exactly the right moment, the medicine may end up in your mouth instead of in your lungs. Using a spacer helps prevent this from happening.

A spacer is a kind of holding chamber for medicine. It attaches to the inhaler on one end and to a mouthpiece or mask on the other end. When you push down on your inhaler, the medicine stays in the spacer until you’re ready to breathe it in.

With a spacer, it usually takes a couple of minutes (or less) to get medicine into your lungs.

Dry Powder Inhalers

Like the name says, dry powder inhalers deliver medicine as a powder. The powder is also breathed in, but it doesn’t spray out. You need to do more of the work by inhaling the powdered medicine quickly and strongly.


Nebulizers are machines that turn liquid asthma medicine into a fine mist. The person with asthma breathes the mist into the lungs.

Babies and younger kids often use nebulizers because they don’t have to do anything — they just sit in one place and get their medicine.

Nebulizers take at least 5 or 10 minutes to deliver the medicine. They can be a bit bulky and noisy, and might not be that easy to carry around.

Find What’s Right for You

Medicines that get breathed in are a key part of asthma treatment for most people. They work to prevent flare-ups from happening and they help keep flare-ups from getting really bad. But inhalers can be tricky to use. Your doctor might ask you to take a puff from your inhaler during an office visit to check your technique and be sure the medicine is getting to where it’s needed.

If you have questions about your inhaler, ask someone on your asthma care team. They’re there to answer your questions. They want to be sure that the inhaler you’re using is the right one for you. If the medicine isn’t getting to your lungs where it’s needed, it’s not doing any good!

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014