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How to Use an Inhaler for Asthma

May 5, 2023

An inhaler gets medicine to your lungs quickly in the event of an asthma attack. It’s important to know how to use an inhaler correctly. But approximately 92% of people with asthma use their devices incorrectly at some point, according to a 2015 study. There are consequences to misusing an inhaler, such as more asthma attacks and emergency room visits.

Types of Inhalers

There are several different types of inhalers that work differently and contain different asthma medications. The most common types of inhalers are:

  • Dry powder inhaler (DPI). The inhaler pierces a capsule or disk sealed with a dose of dry powder. It is best for those who can inhale deeply.
  • Metered dose inhaler (MDI). Liquid medicine is held in a pressurized canister and is propelled out as aerosol. Sometimes, a spacer chamber is used with this type of inhaler, making the inhaler easier to use.
  • Soft mist inhaler (SMI). This type of inhaler releases a mist of medication that users can ingest easily by breathing normally. 

Over 300 million people worldwide suffer from asthma, and inhalers are one of the most common treatments for the condition.

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI)

When is the best time to Use my Inhaler?

A person with asthma should use their inhaler as directed by their doctor. If you aren’t sure when to use your inhaler, please contact your doctor or physician’s office for additional details, as instructions could vary from patient to patient.

Patients with asthma can use their inhaler before working out or being exposed to things like pollen or pet hair that can make their symptoms worse. It’s important to remember that using inhalers too much can make symptoms worse and make them less effective over time, so people should follow their doctor’s advice about when and how often to use their inhaler. 

How Do I Use an Inhaler? 

Body posture and position are important when using any type of inhaler. Sitting upright or standing helps the medicine get to your lungs easier. 

If you have an SMI or MDI, you must prime it before use. DPIs do not have to be primed. 

Always read the device’s instructions before using, and contact your medical provider if you have questions about the inhaler. 

How to Use a Dry Powder Inhaler

  1. Take off the device cap.
  2. Load a capsule if you have a single-use device.
  3. Slowly exhale. 
  4. Lodge the mouthpiece between your teeth; close your mouth.
  5. Breathe deeply in through your mouth for about 3 seconds.
  6. Remove the inhaler from your mouth.
  7. Hold your breath for up to 10 seconds. 
  8. Slowly breathe out.

How to Use a Metered Dose Inhaler

MDIs come with — or without — a spacer, which holds the medicine in a chamber tube first. Some people find it easier to use an MDI with a spacer because it’s easier to breathe in the medicine. There are different techniques to using these MDIs.

MDIs With a Spacer

  1. Insert the inhaler into the spacer.
  2. Shake the inhaler for about 5 seconds.
  3. Place your thumb underneath the inhaler; hold it up with your index finger resting on top. (If needed, hold the spacer with your other hand.)
  4. Exhale before putting the mouthpiece between your teeth, enclosed in your lips. Your tongue should not block the opening.
  5. Press down the top.
  6. Breathe in for about 5 seconds, allowing your lungs to fill completely.
  7. Hold your breath for up to 10 seconds before exhaling. 
  8. If you did not get enough air, try again in about 30 seconds.
  9. Shake the inhaler before the second puff.
  10. Place the cap on the mouthpiece.
  11. Rinse your mouth after using your inhaler if the medicine has a steroid in it.

MDIs Without a Spacer

  1. Remove the mouthpiece cover.
  2. Shake the inhaler for about 5 seconds. 
  3. Place your thumb underneath the inhaler; hold it up with your index finger resting on top.
  4. Breathe out before putting the mouthpiece between your teeth and closing your lips tightly around it. (If it’s more comfortable, you can also hold the mouthpiece slightly away from your mouth — a space about the width of two fingers.
  5. Press the top and breathe in for about 6 seconds.
  6. Hold your breath for up to 10 seconds before exhaling.
  7. If you did not get enough air, try again in about 30 seconds.
  8. Shake the inhaler before the second puff.
  9. Place the cap on the mouthpiece.
  10. Rinse your mouth after using your inhaler if the medicine has a steroid in it.

How to Use a Soft Mist Inhaler

  1. Steadily hold the inhaler upright.
  2. Turn the device’s clear base toward the arrows printed on it. 
  3. Stop when you hear a click, and flip open the cap.
  4. Slowly exhale. 
  5. Keep your head upright without bending your neck. 
  6. Open your mouth, and point the device toward the back of your throat. Close your lips around the inhaler.
  7. Press the release button.
  8. Slowly and deeply inhale the mist.
  9. When the spray stops, hold your breath for about 10 seconds.
  10. Slowly breathe out.
  11. If your doctor has prescribed a second puff, follow steps 2 through 10.

What Should I Do If My Inhaler Isn’t working?

Young mother giving asthma inhaler to her child

If your inhaler isn’t working, there are a few steps you can take to troubleshoot the issue. Here are some recommendations from the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI):

  1. Check the expiration date: Inhalers have a shelf life, and once they expire, they may not work as well. Check the expiration date on your inhaler and replace it if it has expired.
  2. Shake the inhaler: Before using the inhaler, make sure to shake it vigorously. This helps to ensure that the medication is evenly distributed and can be delivered effectively.
  3. Check for clogs: Sometimes, the inhaler can become clogged with medication or debris, which can prevent it from working properly. Check the inhaler’s mouthpiece and make sure it’s clear of any obstructions.
  4. Use a spacer: A spacer is a device that attaches to your inhaler and helps to deliver the medication more effectively to your lungs. If you’re having trouble using your inhaler, using a spacer may help.
  5. Talk to your healthcare provider: If you’ve tried these steps and your inhaler still isn’t working, talk to your healthcare provider. They may recommend a different type of inhaler or adjust your medication regimen.

Remember, it’s important to always follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for using your inhaler and managing your asthma. If you have any concerns or questions about your treatment, be sure to discuss them with your healthcare provider.

How to Get an Inhaler

Although there are not many on the market, you can buy some inhalers over the counter for mild asthma symptoms. But for more severe conditions, you may need a prescription inhaler with albuterol. A medical provider can help identify what type of inhaler you need, and they can also adjust your asthma action plan as needed.

Reena Patel, DO
Medically Reviewed By: Reena Patel, DO
Reviewed on: April 24, 2023

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