Nebulizers vs Inhalers: A Comprehensive Guide for Caregivers

Chad Birt

Written by Chad Birt on Fri Aug 13 2021.

Nebulizers vs Inhalers: A Comprehensive Guide for Caregivers

Many people living with long-term respiratory conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) use nebulizers or inhalers to ease uncomfortable symptoms and reduce flare-ups. To help you better understand their benefits and uses, we’ve created a comprehensive guide––nebulizer vs. inhaler explained!

Even though these respiratory devices are frequently mentioned together, nebulizers and inhalers are two different things. Read on to find out how they work and which one is right for you.

What is a nebulizer?

A nebulizer is a drug delivery system that converts liquid medication into a fine mist. Nebulizers are typically made up of:

  • Compressor - this is the main component and is responsible for turning liquid medicine into a fine mist

  • Nebulizer Cup

  • Mouthpiece or face mask

  • Tubing

  • Holding chamber for liquid medicine

The mist enters the lungs in one of two ways—via a face mask that covers the mouth and nose, or through a removable mouthpiece. 

In addition to efficiently delivering medication, nebulizers break down mucus and secretions, making them easier to cough up. 

Nebulizer treatment lasts anywhere between 5-20 minutes, depending on the medication required and the condition addressed. While taking the medication, your loved one can read or do other activities as long as they’re able to take deep breaths and stay relaxed.

Read Our Nebulizer Guide

What is an asthma inhaler?

Asthma inhalers are small, portable devices that can be carried in a pocket, purse, or backpack. They’re designed to provide immediate relief during an acute or urgent respiratory situation, like an asthma attack. 

There are three main types of inhalers—metered-dose inhalers, controlled inhalers, and dry powder inhalers.

1) Metered-dose inhalers. A metered-dose inhaler delivers a predetermined amount of aerosolized medication into the lungs. To activate the inhaler, simply squeeze the trigger and breathe in.

2) Controlled inhalers. Controlled inhalers help reduce respiratory inflammation. By using a controlled inhaler several times a day, it’s possible to manage symptoms like coughing and wheezing, while preventing flare-ups during exercise or other physically demanding activities. 

3) Dry powder inhalers. Dry powder inhalers deliver powder medication into the lungs. They’re easier to use than metered-dose inhalers and don’t require the same amount of hand-eye coordination. As a result, these inhalers are particularly beneficial for children as well as adults with mobility issues.

When should I use a nebulizer vs an inhaler?

If you provide care for someone experiencing respiratory issues like asthma, COPD, or seasonal allergies, it’s a good idea to have at least one nebulizer and several inhalers on hand. 

In patients with pneumonia, a common problem is mucus buildup on the lungs, which doesn’t allow air to flow through them adequately. Nebulizers or inhalers might both be recommended by a physician. In either case, the goal would be to loosen the mucus so the patient is able to cough it up and out to clear room for oxygen to circulate through the lungs.

Nebulizers. Nebulizers are easy to use and don’t require any patient participation. Once the mouthpiece or air mask is secured, all your loved one has to do is breathe normally. For this reason, nebulizers are ideal for small children and adults who are wheelchair-bound or bedridden.

Inhalers. Inhalers take a little more practice and require hand-eye coordination. If your loved one fails to use the proper inhaler technique, they might not receive enough medication. For this reason, inhalers are typically recommended for teenagers and relatively mobile adults. 

Caregiver Tip

If your loved one struggles to use an inhaler, they might benefit from a spacer. A spacer is a valved-holding device that connects to the inhaler. It holds the medication in its “mist” form, long enough to be inhaled in one or two breaths. Important note – Spacers can’t be used with dry powder inhalers.

Who can benefit from using a nebulizer or an inhaler?

Anyone who needs to regularly take respiratory medication can benefit from using a nebulizer or an inhaler.

To determine which delivery system best aligns with your loved one’s needs, make an appointment with their primary care physician.

 During the appointment, provide information on your loved one’s routine, mobility, activity level, and cognitive abilities. Their physician will use these and other insights to make a recommendation. 

What types of medication are administered through nebulizers and inhalers?

There are several types of medication administered through nebulizers and inhalers, including:

Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids are a group of drugs that fight inflammation and reduce mucus production. Common corticosteroids administered via nebulizers and inhalers include budesonide and fluticasone.

Bronchodilators. Bronchodilators are a group of drugs that open the airways, making it easier to breathe. Common bronchodilators include albuterol and levalbuterol

What kind of conditions require a nebulizer or in inhaler?

Many conditions may require the use of respiratory devices, like:

  • Asthma and acute asthma. Asthma causes airways to become inflamed and narrow, and respiratory devices can deliver medicine that reduce swelling and open up airways.

  • COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease): Like asthma, COPD can make it difficult to breathe, and respiratory devices can offer relief

  • Cystic Fibrosis can cause thick mucus to build up in the lungs, and nebulizers and inhalers can deliver medicine that loosen up the mucus

If you believe a nebulizer machine may be beneficial to you, you should talk to your healthcare provider for medical advice.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) – Nebulizer vs Inhaler

1) Is it better to use an inhaler or a nebulizer?

The best respiratory device for your loved one depends on their health as well as their cognitive and physical abilities. Nebulizers don’t require any patient participation, so they’re easy to use. Still, they require a power source and aren’t very portable. 

Inhalers are lightweight and can comfortably fit inside your pocket. They don’t use power, but they do require hand-eye coordination and the ability to squeeze a trigger.

2) Can I use a nebulizer instead of an inhaler?

A nebulizer can perform many of the same functions as an inhaler, but it’s more time-consuming to set up. As a result, nebulizers aren’t ideal in emergency situations. If your loved one has an asthma attack, a quick-relief inhaler can provide immediate relief. 

3) What is the difference between nebulization and inhalers?

The main difference between nebulization and inhalers is the way in which the medication is administered.

Both devices convert respiratory drugs into a vapor form, but a nebulizer uses an electric pump, while an inhaler uses a hand-controlled one. Nebulizers often come with a face mask, particularly pediatricnebulizers, which are designed for young children who struggle with inhalers.

4) Are there any side effects of nebulizers or inhalers?

Like all medicines, there can be potential side effects to respiratory devices. The specific side effects will depend on the medication administered, so be sure to speak to your doctor about your potential risks.

In general, some users experience headaches, nervousness, or restlessness. Most people do not experience significant side effects from respiratory treatments.

5) Is a nebulizer good for your lungs?

Nebulizer use is safe and usually well-tolerated. What’s more, treatment can reduce inflammation and improve your loved one’s respiratory health. To ensure the best possible treatment outcome, read and follow the device’s instruction manual carefully. 

Caregiver Recommendation

"Don't forget to clean nebulizers regularly! Otherwise, you can get dirt and bacteria that prevent the device from working correctly. Most of the manufacturer's will put the cleaning instructions right in the box."
-Karen S.

6) Where can I buy a nebulizer?

Now that you have a better understanding of nebulizers, you’re probably wondering where to buy one. We carry several different models here on the Carewell website. Shop our Nebulizers here.

Click here to start browsing, and if you have any questions, contact our friendly care team by calling (800) 696-CARE or sending an email to

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Chad Birt
Chad Birt

Chad Birt is a freelance medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.