What is the Difference Between an Inhaler and a Nebulizer?

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  • Written By: O. Wallace
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2019
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Parents of asthmatic children can be overwhelmed with all the medications required to treat them during an asthma attack. Many wonder what the difference is between an inhaler and a nebulizer. While both deliver rescue or maintenance asthma medication, they each do so by different means. According to studies, both have the same level of effectiveness, but the effectiveness of either depends upon using correct techniques.

A nebulizer is an air compressor machine powered by either electricity or batteries. It converts asthma medication in liquid form into a fine mist that is inhaled through a mask or mouthpiece into the lungs. The nebulizer can be very small or large, and the compressor can be fairly loud. It usually takes approximately five to fifteen minutes to administer a dose of medicine using a nebulizer, but it can be quite difficult to do so effectively if the child is uncooperative or crying.

With both an inhaler and a nebulizer, a child must have some degree of coordination and cooperation in order for the medicine to be delivered effectively. With a nebulizer, it is somewhat easier to put a facemask on an infant or small child, and if he or she stays still, the medicine can be administered. Some argue that the nebulizer can give the child a stronger, more effective dose of medication, especially if he or she has a hard time using an inhaler.


There are two types of inhaler: the metered dose inhaler (MDI) and the dry powder inhaler. The metered dose inhaler is much more common, and some models are available over-the-counter. They consist of a small can, much like an aerosol can, that administers a metered, or measured, dose of the medication. The canister fits into a plastic holder and comes out through a mouthpiece at the bottom. With one push down on the top of the canister, the medicine is delivered into the mouth in a small puff that must be inhaled into the lungs.

For small children, metered dose inhalers must be used with a spacer or chamber that can be used with a mouthpiece or face mask. This chamber holds the medication until it is drawn out by the child. This requires coordination and the ability to follow instructions on the child’s part. The benefits of a metered dose inhaler are that it is small, portable, inexpensive, fast and easy to use.

With a dry powder inhaler, the medicine is also inhaled, but in a powdered form. This may be difficult for small children to use. A spacer is attached to the inhaler, which contains the powdered medicine. The child inhales the medication through a mouthpiece or mask. Your doctor will decide whether an inhaler or a nebulizer is best for you or your child, depending on the severity of the asthma or respiratory illness and the patient's ability to use the device correctly.


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Post 5

Both inhalers and nebulizers have their advantages and disadvantages. Nebulizers are preferred for very young children, elderly and anyone who has reduced movement or coordination. Inhalers are preferred by anyone else for their mobility and practical use. It's great that we have both options though. In fact, in some cases doctors may require a patient to use both in different circumstances.

Post 4

@turquoise-- Our doctor said that it is safe for children above five to use a dry powder inhaler as long as the child can use it correctly.

I've heard of atomizers too. I'm not an expert on the topic but I think that they are not the same as the propellant based aerosol inhalers. An atomizer delivers the drug as a vapor.

I remember my coworker talking about it once though and she had a bad experience. I don't think that there is a good brand of atomizer inhalers on the market as of 2015. A nebulizer is best but the issue is that it can't be carried with you. So most people prefer the aerosol inhaler or a powder inhaler.

Post 3

I always thought that a nebulizer was a type of inhaler. Thanks for explaining the difference.

Does anyone know, above what age can children use a dry powder inhaler? And has anyone heard of a type of inhaler called an atomizer? Is it any different than an aerosol inhaler?

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