Nebuliser Vs Inhaler — What’s the Difference

Nebuliser Vs Inhaler — What’s the Difference

Steven Cumper

Steven Cumper

Published in MedShop Blog

0 min read

September 29, 2023

For medical professionals, or anyone who suffers breathing difficulties caused by asthma, lung disease, or cystic fibrosis, inhalers and nebulizers are probably all too familiar, and at some point, you no doubt will have come across both. However, for those not in regular contact with these life-saving devices, there may be some confusion between the two.

This article aims to explain the purpose of both nebulizers and inhalers, describing how they work, the key differences between the two, and what you should consider if you are looking to purchase one or both of these types of medication delivery devices. Read on to learn more.


What Is a Nebulizer

For those asking what is a nebulizer, the simple answer is that it is a specialized medical device used in the treatment of respiratory conditions. It is designed to convert liquid medicine into a fine mist, making it easier to inhale, where it enters the lungs and then into the bloodstream.

Nebulizers are commonly prescribed for individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, and acute asthma. They are particularly beneficial for young children or those who may have difficulty using other inhalation devices. However, they are usually larger than inhalers, and they are designed to go over the mouth.

How Does It Work and When to Use Them?

Nebulizers rely on a power source to work, usually an air compressor powered by electrical connection or battery. Medication is added to a medicine cup, which is then attached to the mouthpiece or mask. Next the tubing is connected between the mouthpiece or mask and the nebulizer compressor. The medication is then turned into a mist which can be inhaled through the mouthpiece or mask.

The time it takes to use a nebulizer will depend on the amount of medication prescribed, but users should take normal breaths during the medication delivery period. This can range from 5 to 15 minutes depending on the condition and the type of medications.

In most cases, nebulizers are used during the exacerbation or flare-up of lung diseases when quick relief is critical. They are also often used on patients who are unable to use inhalers due to medical conditions, and also on babies and small children who would otherwise find using inhalers difficult.  


Types of Nebulizers

Today, there are two primary types of nebulizers, jet nebulizers and ultrasonic nebulizers. Jet nebulizers use compressed air to generate a mist, while ultrasonic nebulizers employ high-frequency vibrations. Each type has its pros and cons, and a doctor will usually advise on which type is best suited to specific medical conditions or medication types.


Pros and Cons

As with any kind of medical device, a nebulizer features certain pros and cons that you should be aware of. Some things to consider include:


  • Effective for delivering liquid medication.
  • Suitable for individuals with difficulty using handheld devices.
  • Ideal for young children or those requiring specific dosages.
  • Can be used during acute asthma or COPD exacerbations.


  • Requires a power source for operation.
  • Treatment may take longer compared to inhalers.
  • Nebulizer machines are less portable than inhalers.


What Is an Inhaler

Vitalograph Vitalograph Disposable MDI SimulatorAn inhaler, also known as a metered-dose inhaler (MDI), is a handheld device that delivers medication in aerosol form directly into the lungs. It is a common method of drug delivery for individuals with various respiratory conditions, especially asthma. They are usually compact enough to fit into a pocket, with a small mouthpiece designed to fit into the mouth.


How Does It Work and When to Use Them?  

Inhalers work by releasing a specific dosage of medication in the form of a fine mist. This is achieved by pressing down on the MDI, which activates the release of the aerosol. To enhance delivery, a spacer or holding chamber may be used. This accessory helps ensure that enough of the medication reaches the lungs, particularly for individuals who may have difficulty during inhalation.

Types of Inhalers

There are many different types of inhalers currently available today, including dry powder inhalers (DPIs) and pressurized metered-dose inhalers (pMDIs). DPIs release medication in powder form and require the patient to inhale deeply. pMDIs, on the other hand, deliver medication in a liquid propellant, which is then converted into a fine mist for inhalation.


Pros and Cons

Some of the benefits of inhalers over nebulizers are included below, however, it’s also important to think about the disadvantages in relation to your particular medical condition.


  • Highly portable and convenient for on-the-go use.
  • Quick and efficient drug delivery.
  • No need for a power source or additional equipment.
  • Available in various formulations, including corticosteroids and bronchodilators.


  • Requires precise inhaler technique for optimal effectiveness.
  • May not be suitable for very young children or individuals with coordination difficulties.


Key Differences Between Nebulizers and Inhalers

While often thought of as similar medication delivery devices, there are a number of key differences between nebulizers and inhalers. The table below will help you to understand the differences and why they are important.




Delivery Mechanism

Convert liquid medication into a fine mist, making it easy to inhale into the lungs. This process is achieved through the use of a compressor or ultrasonic technology.

Release medication in aerosol form. They function by activating a canister that propels the medication into a fine mist for inhalation.

Portability and Power Source

Less portable as they rely on a power source, usually a compressor, for operation. This limits their use to settings where electricity is readily available.

Highly portable and do not require an external power source. This makes them suitable for on-the-go use and convenient for individuals with active lifestyles.

Speed of Administration

Treatments generally take longer compared to inhalers. The process of converting liquid medication into a fine mist can require several minutes to complete.

Quick and efficient drug delivery. The medication is released instantly, allowing for a swift response to respiratory symptoms.

Age and Patient Considerations

Often preferred for young children, as they may have difficulty using inhalers effectively. The fine mist produced by a nebulizer is easier for children to inhale.

Require a certain level of coordination and technique for optimal effectiveness. They may be more suitable for older children, adolescents, and adults.

Accessories and Aids

May be used with additional accessories, such as masks, to facilitate delivery, particularly for individuals who struggle with a mouthpiece.

can be used with a holding chamber or spacer to enhance drug delivery. This accessory helps ensure that enough of the medication reaches the lungs.

Types of Medication

Well-suited for delivering a wide range of medications, including corticosteroids, bronchodilators, and antibiotics in liquid form.

Available in various formulations, including corticosteroids for long-term control and bronchodilators for immediate relief during asthma attacks or exacerbations.

Emergency Use

Frequently used in cases of severe respiratory conditions like cystic fibrosis or acute exacerbations of COPD.

Widely used for both maintenance therapy and quick-relief applications in conditions like asthma and COPD.



Factors to Consider When Choosing Between Nebulizers and Inhalers

At the end of the day, choosing between a nebulizer and inhaler will depend on a variety of factors related to your medical conditions or conditions. You will need to think about the following before making a purchase:

  • Condition Severity — Consider the severity of the respiratory condition. Nebulizers are often preferred for acute exacerbations, while inhalers can be used for both maintenance and quick relief.
  • Age and Patient Population — Young children, elderly individuals, or those with limited hand dexterity may find nebulizers with masks or mouthpieces more manageable. Inhalers can be challenging for young children or those with coordination difficulties.
  • Portability and Lifestyle — Nebulizers require a power source and are less portable. Inhalers are highly portable and convenient, making them suitable for active lifestyles or frequent travelers.
  • Medication Type and Formulation — Consider the specific medications prescribed. Some may only be available in liquid form, making a nebulizer necessary. Inhalers offer a wide range of formulations, including corticosteroids, bronchodilators, and combination therapies.
  • Emergency Situations — For emergencies like acute asthma attacks, inhalers with rapid-acting bronchodilators are often preferred due to their immediate action and portability.
  • Patient Preference and Comfort — Involve the patient in the decision-making process. Some individuals may have a strong preference for one method over the other based on personal experience or comfort level.


Which One Is Better for You: Nebulizer or Inhaler?

When it comes to choosing a nebulizer or inhaler, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and your unique circumstances must be taken into account. Sometimes one of either will suffice, however, for other medical conditions you need a nebulizer installed at home and an inhaler when you leave the house. 

Ultimately, the decision should be made in consultation with your doctor or healthcare provider who will assess your specific needs, preferences, and medical history. Remember, always seek medical advice before making any significant changes to a treatment plan, and always consult with your doctor on the devices you are using.

For more information on nebulisers, inhalers, and other medical devices, contact Medshop today.


Author: Steven John Cumper, B.App.SC. (Osteo.), M.Ost., is a businessman with a strong foundation in biomedical science and osteopathic medicine, who founded and led Medshop to international success, culminating in its acquisition by the Bunzl Group in September 2021, where he continues to serve as Managing Director (Medshop Group).

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