Most people who have asthma respond well to treatment that includes an inhaled steroid medication, along with an "as needed" rescue inhaler, which is a broncodilator. In most cases, these medications are delivered via small handheld devices called either metered dose inhalers or dry powder inhalers. I talk more about the typical medication treatment choices in my post, Which Asthma Medication Is Best?
Some patients, though, may use a different form of medication delivery called a nebulizer. This is an aerosolized breathing treatment. It can be used with some of the same medications that are delivered via handheld inhaler.
Is a Nebulizer More Effective for Asthma Control?
In adults and older children with mild to moderate asthma, the answer is probably no. A nebulizer may be just as effective as an inhaler in getting the medicine into your airways, but studies haven't proven that it works any better.
However, there are two groups who might benefit more from a nebulizer treatment:
- Very young children or anyone else who is not able to master the use of a handheld inhaler
- People who have severe, poorly-controlled asthma or those having a severe flare-up (also known as exacerbation or asthma attack)
How Does a Nebulizer Work?
Nebulizers are electronic machines that take a liquid medicine and transform it into a fine mist that can be inhaled through a mouthpiece attached to a flexible plastic tube. There are three different types of nebulizers and each one works a little differently.
Jet nebulizers apply pressurized or compressed air to medicine to create an aerosol or mist. Certain types of asthma medicine, such as budesonide, can only be given using a jet nebulizer.
Ultrasonic nebulizers use vibration from high frequency soundwaves to change the medication into a mist. This type of device tends to be quieter and to work more quickly than a jet nebulizer. But not all medications can be used in this kind of nebulizer.
Mesh nebulizers also use vibration, but this time the medicine is vibrated at high speeds through a mesh membrane that separates the larger liquid particles into tiny aerosolized particles that can be inhaled. This is the fastest, but also the most expensive, type of nebulizer. It also requires frequent cleaning of the mesh membrane.
All of these types of nebulizers are available in portable, at-home models. The ultrasonic and mesh type are also available in battery-operated models, making them even more convenient and portable for at-home use.
Should You Use a Nebulizer?
Most people who have asthma will never use a nebulizer. But the only way to make a valid decision about this is to discuss it with your physician. Together, you can decide on the best plan of action for your asthma control.