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Inhaled Relief: How COPD Devices Work

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While there's no cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), inhaled medication can help. Along with other treatments, inhaled drugs for COPD can improve symptoms and a person's quality of life.

There are two main ways inhaled medicine is used. The first is with an inhaler, and the second is with a nebulizer. Here's what you need to know about the differences.

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COPD Treatment: Inhalers and Nebulizers

Inhalers and nebulizers have the same purpose: to get the drugs into the lungs where you need them. Both deliver the same types of medicine, and both are equally effective when used properly.

  • Inhalers are small, handheld devices that deliver a puff of medicine into the airways. There are three basic types: metered-dose inhalers (MDIs). dry powder inhalers (DPIs), and soft mist inhalers (SMI).
    • MDIs contain a liquid medication that is delivered as an aerosol spray. The medicine is held in a pressurized cannister that has a metering valve. You can close your lips around the mouthpiece or place the mouthpiece 1 to 2 inches from your mouth and breathe in slowly as you press down on the inhaler. An alternative method that many find preferable is to use a spacer. A spacer is a hollow plastic tube used between the mouthpiece and the canister of medicine. A spacer makes it easier to get the full dose of medication all the way to your lungs.
    • A DPI is similar, but it releases a puff of dry powder instead of a liquid mist. DPIs should not be used with a spacer. Instead, close your mouth tightly around the mouthpiece of the DPI inhaler and inhale rapidly and steadily. It is important to remove the device from your mouth before exhaling so that humid air doesn’t get into the device and cause the powder to clump.
    • An SMI is a newer type of inhaler that provides a pre-measured amount of medicine in a slow-moving mist that helps you inhale the medicine.  You put your lips on the mouthpiece while holding the device horizontally and being careful not to cover the air vents.  It actively delivers medicine in a way that does not depend on how fast you breathe the air from the inhaler in.
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