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What’s the Difference between Inhalers and Nebulisers?

What’s the Difference between Inhalers and Nebulisers?

, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 6 min reading time

Respiratory therapy has come a long way in effectively managing various lung conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cystic fibrosis. The advent of new technologies has revolutionised this field, leading to the development of diverse respiratory aids and machines, making it easier and more accessible for patients to actively participate in their healthcare journey. Among these advancements, two prominent devices used in respiratory therapy are inhalers and nebulisers

But how exactly do they differ, and which one might be right for you?

Understanding the key differences between these two devices is crucial for individuals managing respiratory conditions. Deciding which one is right for you requires careful consideration of your specific needs and preferences, in consultation with your healthcare provider. Let's delve deeper into the functionalities of both inhalers and nebulisers, exploring their strengths, limitations, and who might benefit most from each option.

How do inhalers work?

Inhalers are devices designed to deliver medication directly into the lungs. They come in various types, including metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) and dry powder inhalers (DPIs), each with its own method of delivering medication.

Here's a breakdown of how inhalers work:

  1. Pressurised canister - At the heart of most inhalers lies a pressurised canister containing the medication, either in liquid form (MDI) or as a fine powder (DPI). This pressurised environment ensures a precise and consistent dose is delivered with each activation.
  2. Propellant - In MDIs, a propellant, usually a harmless gas, helps propel the medication out of the canister when you press down on the inhaler. DPIs, on the other hand, rely on your inhalation force to draw the medication out of the device.
  3. The delivery system - Depending on the type of inhaler, the medication might be delivered through a mouthpiece or a spacer device. Mouthpieces are typically attached directly to the inhaler, while spacers are chambered attachments that hold the medication mist for a brief moment before you inhale
  4. Inhalation and delivery - Once you activate the inhaler and place the mouthpiece or spacer in your mouth, you take a slow and deep breath, drawing the medication mist into your lungs. The specific inhalation technique may vary depending on the type of inhaler and your doctor's instructions.
  5. Absorption and action - Once inhaled, the medication particles deposit deep within your lungs, where they are absorbed directly into the bloodstream or act locally on the airways, depending on the specific medication.

Do nebulisers work the same as inhalers?

While both nebulisers and inhalers serve the purpose of delivering medication directly to the lungs, they do so through different mechanisms of action. 

Inhalers, such as metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) and dry powder inhalers (DPIs), deliver medication in a fine mist or powder form that can be inhaled into the lungs with a quick puff. This method allows for rapid absorption of the medication, making it effective for providing quick relief from respiratory symptoms.

On the other hand, nebulisers convert liquid medication into a mist or aerosol that can be inhaled through a mask or mouthpiece. Nebulisers are often used in cases where individuals have difficulty using inhalers, such as young children, the elderly, or those experiencing severe respiratory distress. Nebulisers offer a slower and more prolonged delivery of medication compared to inhalers, making them suitable for individuals who require longer treatment durations or have difficulty coordinating their breathing.

Comparing the portability and convenience

One of the most significant advantages of inhalers lies in their portability and convenience. Their compact size and lightweight design make them easy to carry around, allowing you to manage your respiratory condition discreetly and effectively, regardless of your location. Whether you're at work, school, or enjoying your favourite activities, inhalers provide the freedom to receive your medication whenever necessary.

In contrast, traditional nebulisers are significantly bulkier and less portable. These machines typically require an electrical outlet or battery power to function and often come with various attachments like masks, tubes, and saline solution containers. This added bulk can make it challenging to carry a nebuliser around, limiting its use primarily to home settings.

There are various types of nebulisers, but with the growing demand for convenience, it has led to the development of more portable nebulisers. These smaller, battery-powered versions offer a compromise between the effectiveness of traditional nebulisers and the portability of inhalers. While still slightly larger than inhalers, they can be a good option for individuals who require nebulised medication but also value some level of portability.

Types of medicine nebulisers and inhalers deliver


Bronchodilators are medications that help relax the muscles around the airways, opening them up and making it easier to breathe. They are commonly used to treat conditions such as asthma and COPD. Inhalers and nebulisers can deliver short-acting bronchodilators for quick relief of symptoms during flare-ups, as well as long-acting bronchodilators for maintenance therapy to keep airways open over time.


Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory medications that help reduce swelling and inflammation in the airways. They are often used as maintenance therapy to control symptoms and prevent exacerbations in conditions like asthma and COPD. Inhalers and nebulisers can deliver corticosteroids directly to the lungs, helping to reduce inflammation and improve lung function.

Combination Medications: 

Some inhalers and nebulisers are designed to deliver a combination of bronchodilators and corticosteroids in a single dose. These combination medications offer both bronchodilation and anti-inflammatory effects, providing comprehensive treatment for respiratory conditions.


In cases of respiratory infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat bacterial infections. Nebulisers can deliver antibiotics directly to the lungs, where they can help fight off infection and reduce inflammation.


Mucolytic medications help thin and loosen mucus in the airways, making it easier to cough up and clear from the lungs. They are often used to treat conditions like cystic fibrosis or chronic bronchitis. Nebulisers are commonly used to deliver mucolytics, allowing for effective penetration of the medication into the airways.


Throughout this exploration, we've uncovered the unique characteristics of each device – from the portability and ease of use of inhalers to the continuous administration provided by nebulisers. We've delved into their mechanisms of action, dosage delivery methods, and the types of medications they can deliver, highlighting the versatility and effectiveness of both options in managing respiratory health.

In conclusion, when it comes to managing respiratory conditions, the choice between inhalers and nebulisers ultimately boils down to your specific needs and preferences, guided by the expertise of your healthcare providers.

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