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Inhaled Relief: How COPD Devices Work

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COPD Treatment: Inhalers and Nebulizers continued...

While inhalers use the same general principle, don't assume that they all work the same way. For instance, while you're supposed to shake an MDI before using it, you should never shake a DPI. Each device needs to be cleaned differently and has a different way of tracking when it’s empty. Always follow the instructions for the specific device.

  • Nebulizers are machines that convert a liquid medicine into a mist that you inhale into your lungs. Nebulizers aren't particularly portable, so you keep a nebulizer at home. To use it, you measure out the medicine into a cup and attach the cup with tubing to the machine. Then you turn it on, relax, and breathe the mist in deeply through a mouthpiece or mask. Depending on the medication, it usually takes 20 minutes or less to inhale the medicine. Afterwards, you need to clean the nebulizer and mouthpiece or mask with water and, periodically, soap before you use it again.

Inhalers and nebulizers are only available by prescription. While you might see some bronchodilator inhalers sold over-the-counter, don't use them unless your doctor recommends it. They could be dangerous for people with certain health conditions, such as heart problems.

COPD Treatment: Which Is Better for Me?

Which approach is better: a nebulizer or an inhaler? It depends on what your doctor recommends, your personal preference, and what insurance will cover. The key is making sure you feel comfortable using whichever one you choose correctly.

Most people with COPD use inhalers. One big advantage is that they're portable. While you have to use a nebulizer at home (or in a medical facility) you can carry an inhaler in your pocket. Inhalers also deliver medication more quickly. After a few puffs, perhaps separated by a minute or two, you're done.

However, using inhalers correctly can take some practice. Numerous studies have found that fewer than half the people with MDIs for asthma or COPD actually use them properly.

For people who have trouble with inhalers, nebulizers can be the best choice. They also can be temporarily helpful for COPD flare-ups. Some people just prefer nebulizers and feel that they're more effective. Your doctor will have advice about which approach makes sense in your case. 

Because nebulizers are expensive and require maintenance, insurance companies might be less likely to cover them for long-term use.

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