Nebulizer vs Inhaler: A Must-Read Guide

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When it comes to managing chronic lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), respiratory treatments are super important. These treatments deliver medications directly to the lungs, providing quick relief and long-term control of symptoms. Effective treatments can significantly improve the quality of life for people suffering with breathing issues.

Inhalers and nebulizers are the two main devices used for this purpose. Each has its own pros and cons, making it important to understand which makes more sense for your needs and preferences.

This article will provide a comprehensive comparison on a nebulizer vs inhaler so you fully understand the differences and make an informed decision. 

What are Inhalers and Nebulizers?

Inhalers and nebulizers are devices designed to deliver medications directly to the lungs in the form of a mist or aerosol. This method of delivery is ultra effective for treating respiratory conditions because it gets the medication right where it's needed fast.

Both inhalers and nebulizers play a vital role in managing lung diseases. They help open airways, reduce inflammation, and prevent flare-ups. Directly inhaling medications can control and alleviate symptoms of asthma, COPD, and other respiratory issues more effectively than taking pills.

Types of Inhalers

Metered-Dose Inhalers (MDIs)

Metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) are the most common type of inhaler. They deliver a specific amount of medication in aerosol form with each puff. MDIs require you to coordinate your breath with the activation of the inhaler, which can be tricky for some people (especially kids and older adults). Using a spacer can help by holding the medication in place until you're ready to inhale it.

Dry Powder Inhalers (DPIs)

Dry powder inhalers (DPIs) deliver medication as a dry powder. These inhalers are breath-activated, meaning you need to inhale quickly and deeply to pull the medication into your lungs. DPIs are usually easier to use correctly than MDIs and don't need the same level of coordination. However, they require a stronger and more forceful inhalation, which may not be easy for everyone.

Soft Mist Inhalers (SMIs)

Soft mist inhalers (SMIs) are a newer type of inhaler that delivers medication in a slow-moving mist. This makes it easier to inhale the medication deeply into your lungs. SMIs don't require a spacer and are designed to be easy to use, giving you more time to inhale the medication. They're particularly helpful for people who have trouble using MDIs or DPIs.

Types of Nebulizers

Jet Nebulizers

Jet nebulizers (also called compressor nebulizers) are the most common type of neb. They use compressed air to turn liquid medication into a fine mist that you can inhale. They’re typically bulkier and noisier than other types, but they’re reliable and effective.

Ultrasonic Nebulizers

Ultrasonic nebulizers use high-frequency sound waves to create a mist from liquid medication. They’re quieter and usually more portable than jet nebulizers. They can be more expensive and may not work with all medications.

Mesh Nebulizers

Mesh nebulizers are the newest type and use a mesh with tiny holes to create a mist. They’re compact, quiet, and very efficient, making them great for travel. They can be more expensive and delicate, so they need careful handling.

How it Works: Nebulizer vs Inhaler

How Inhalers Deliver Medication

Inhalers deliver medication directly to the lungs through inhalation. When you press the medication canister in the  inhaler, it releases a specific amount of medication in the form of a mist or powder. This medication travels quickly to the lungs, providing fast relief from symptoms like wheezing and shortness of breath.

How Nebulizers Deliver Medication

Nebulizers turn liquid medication into a fine mist that you inhale through a mouthpiece or mask. The mist is inhaled slowly over several minutes, allowing the medication to reach deep into the lungs. This makes nebulizers especially useful for those who have difficulty using inhalers or need larger doses of medication.

Usage Instructions

Step-by-Step Guide for Using Inhalers

  1. Prepare the Inhaler: Shake the inhaler well before use. If it's your first time using it or if you haven't used it in a while, you might need to prime it by releasing a few test sprays into the air.
  2. Attach Spacer (if needed): If you use a spacer, attach it to the inhaler.
  3. Position the Inhaler: Hold the inhaler upright with your thumb on the bottom and your index finger on the top. Place the mouthpiece into your mouth and close your lips around it.
  4. Breathe Out: Breathe out fully to empty your lungs.
  5. Inhale and Press: As you start to breathe in slowly and deeply, press down on the inhaler to release the medication. Continue to breathe in slowly for 3-5 seconds.
  6. Hold Your Breath: Hold your breath for about 10 seconds to allow the medication to settle in your lungs.
  7. Exhale Slowly: Breathe out slowly through your mouth or nose.
  8. Repeat (if needed): If you need another dose (and if prescribed), wait about 30 seconds to a minute before repeating the steps.

Step-by-Step Guide for Using Nebulizers

  1. Prepare the Nebulizer: Wash your hands before handling the medication or equipment. Place the prescribed amount of medication into the nebulizer cup.
  2. Assemble the Nebulizer: Attach the cup to the nebulizer machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If it’s a mesh nebulizer, simply snap the lid closed. Connect the mouthpiece or mask.
  3. Sit Comfortably: Sit in a comfortable, upright position to ensure you can take deep breaths.
  4. Turn on the Machine: Turn on the nebulizer machine. You should see a mist coming from the mouthpiece or mask.
  5. Inhale the Medication: Place the mouthpiece in your mouth and close your lips around it, or put the mask over your nose and mouth. Breathe in deeply and slowly through your mouth, and hold each breath for a few seconds before exhaling.
  6. Continue Until Done: Continue to breathe in the medication until the nebulizer cup is empty, which usually takes about 10-15 minutes (mesh nebulizers are much faster).
  7. Turn Off and Clean: Turn off the nebulizer machine and clean the nebulizer cup and mouthpiece or mask according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Common Medications

Medications Commonly Used with Inhalers

  • Corticosteroids: These anti-inflammatory medications help reduce swelling and irritation in the airways. Common inhaled corticosteroids include fluticasone (Flovent) and budesonide (Pulmicort).
  • Bronchodilators: These medications relax the muscles around the airways to help open them up, making it easier to breathe. Examples include albuterol (ProAir, Ventolin) and salmeterol (Serevent).
  • Combination Inhalers: These inhalers contain both a corticosteroid and a bronchodilator for dual action. Common combinations include fluticasone/salmeterol (Advair) and budesonide/formoterol (Symbicort).

Medications Commonly Used with Nebulizers

  • Albuterol: A fast-acting bronchodilator that provides quick relief from acute symptoms.
  • Ipratropium: Another bronchodilator often used in combination with albuterol for enhanced effect.
  • Budesonide: An inhaled corticosteroid that helps reduce inflammation.
  • Formoterol: A long-acting bronchodilator used for ongoing management of symptoms.
  • DuoNeb: A combination of albuterol and ipratropium used for more severe cases.

Effectiveness Comparison: Nebulizer vs Inhaler

Speed and Efficiency of Drug Delivery

  • Inhalers: Inhalers are generally quicker to use, delivering medication directly to the lungs within seconds. This makes them ideal for immediate relief during an asthma attack.
  • Nebulizers: Nebulizers take longer, usually taking anywhere from 5-15 minutes to deliver a full dose. However, they are effective for patients who need a continuous flow of medication, such as during a severe respiratory episode.

Effectiveness in Different Respiratory Conditions

  • Asthma: Both inhalers and nebulizers are effective, but inhalers are often preferred for their portability and quick action. Nebulizers can be more effective for children or during severe attacks.
  • COPD: Nebulizers can be more beneficial for severe COPD because of the longer administration time, allowing for deeper penetration of medication. Inhalers are also effective for daily management.
  • Cystic Fibrosis and Bronchitis: Nebulizers are often preferred due to their ability to deliver medication deeply into the lungs over a longer period.

Pros and Cons of Inhalers


  • Portability: Inhalers are compact and easy to carry around, making them convenient for use on the go.
  • Quick Administration: Inhalers deliver medication quickly, providing almost immediate relief from symptoms.
  • Less Medication Waste: Inhalers provide precise doses, reducing the amount of wasted medication.


  • Coordination Required: Proper use of inhalers requires coordination between pressing the inhaler and breathing in, which can be challenging for some users.
  • Higher Costs: Inhalers, especially combination ones, can be more expensive than nebulized medications, even with insurance.

Pros and Cons of Nebulizers


  • Easier for Severe Conditions: Nebulizers are ideal for severe respiratory conditions, providing continuous medication over a longer period.
  • Effective for All Age Groups: They are especially useful for young children, the elderly, or anyone who has trouble using inhalers.
  • Affordable Medications: Medications used in nebulizers are generally more affordable than those used in inhalers.


  • Bulky: Jet nebulizers are larger and less portable, making them less convenient for use outside the home (mesh nebulizers are compact).
  • Longer Administration Time: It takes longer to deliver a dose of medication, which can be inconvenient for some people.
  • Requires Power Source: Nebulizers need electricity or batteries to operate, which can limit their use in certain situations.

Studies on Effectiveness of Inhalers vs Nebulizers

Several studies have been done to evaluate the effectiveness of both devices. A study published in 2002 observed outcomes of albuterol given by a metered dose inhaler with spacer vs. a nebulizer in asthmatics at an emergency department. The study found that inhalers, when used with a spacer, are just as effective as nebulizers in delivering medication for asthma relief. The study emphasized that the correct technique is crucial for inhaler effectiveness.Another study including children and adults tested inhalers with spacers vs. nebulizers with beta agonists (like albuterol) for acute asthma treatment. The study found that there was no significant difference in outcomes between the two devices. 

Overall, the studies suggest that both devices are effective, but the choice should be tailored to a patient's ability to use the device correctly, the severity of their condition, and their lifestyle & financial needs. Your healthcare provider can offer additional guidance on choosing a device that works for you.

Explore the TruNeb™ Portable Nebulizer

While it’s always recommended to have an emergency inhaler on-hand for an asthma attack or flare up, the TruNeb Portable Nebulizer offers the effectiveness of a nebulizer in an ultra compact size. Our rechargeable mesh nebulizer easily fits in the palm of your hand, ready to go anywhere with you. 

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