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COPD – Breathing Easier with Aerosols & Inhalers

What Are These Things and How Do I Use Them?

At first, an inhaler may look hard to use…but it is not.  The trick is to learn how to use it the right way so that you get the full benefit of the medicine that is in the aeresol mist you breathe into your lungs.  There are several types of inhalers.  The goal of these inhalers is to give you a dose of medication which you inhale.  Learn more about inhalers and how to use them, clean them and store them.


(Click to See Answers)

Why would I need an inhaler?

Inhalers help to get medicine directly to your lungs.   They deliver medications that work to relax the muscles around the airways in your lungs, and these are called  bronchodilator inhalers, says the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).  Other inhalers contain steriods, which help prevent reduce the inflammation and swelling in the airways of your lungs, to help you breathe better.

What does aerosol mean and how does it work?

You probably use aerosols quite often.  Have you sprayed perfume or aftershave lately?  Have you used hairspray or a room deodorizer recently?  When you push the button on these, you see a small cloud or mist made up of thousands  of tiny little particles that float in the air…this is an aerosol.  The American Association for Respiratory Care describes aresols as contents mixed with gas and pressure to help push the contents out of the container.

When medicine is mixed with gas, it is a medical aerosol.  There are different types of devices that deliver this aerosol, which you use to inhale the medication to breathe easier.

Is a nebulizer also an inhaler?

The simple answer is no.  But, a nebulizer does use aerosol to help get the medication into your lungs.

There are 3 types of aerosol devices used for COPD treatment.  Below are descriptions given to us from the American Association for Respiratory Care:

  • Pressurized metered-dose inhaler (pMDI)
    • This is the most common type of inhaler that usually comes to mind.  It’s a small aluminum canister that contains both medicine and pressurized aerosol, which is inserted into a plastic device that you place into your  mouth to deliver the medicine (which is a liquid mist).
  • Dry-powder inhaler (DPI)
    • This is a newer kind of inhaler.  There is no wet mist.  The medication is delivered as a fine,dry powder and there is no pressurized aerosol to push the medicine out for you to breathe.  Instead, you create the energy to draw out the medication when you take a deep and fast breath (inhalation) through the inhaler.  This breath carries the powdered medication into your lungs.
  • Small-volume nebulizer (SVN)
    • This is the oldest type of aerosol device.  It usually is made up of several parts, which include a plastic tube, a small plastic nebulizer and a compressor.  When liquid medication is placed  in the nebulizer cup and the compressor is turned on, the gas creates the aerosol which you then breathe.

More details on the different brands and types of inhalers and aerosols can be found further below.

How to Use Inhalers

A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Inhalers and Aerosol Medications from the American Association for Respiratory Care

This guide from the American Association for Respiratory Care is filled with a tremendous amount of good information, including how to clean and take care of your inhaler and/or nebulizer.  Be sure to go over this information with your doctor and health care team.


In this guide, from the American Association for Respiratory Care, detailed instructions for cleaning and maintaining your inhaler and/or nebulizer can be found on pages 50 – 52.


Tools & Resources at Your Fingertips

Take Action!

The series of videos from the COPD Foundation below help to show you how to use a variety of aerosol devices.

Additional Valuable Tools & Resources

Cleaning Your Inhaler (pMDI)

Follow these simple cleaning steps, from the American Association for Respiratory Care, to prevent harmful bacteria and infections happening.

Cleaning Your Nebulizer

To  clean your nebulizer after each time you use it, follow these step-by-step instructions, provided by the American Association for Respiratory Care.

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