What’s All This Asthma Stuff? Part 1

When my kids were first diagnosed 18 years ago, we had NO idea what we were doing. Sure, I had SEEN an asthma inhaler. But never thought I or my kiddos would be using one. And that was just the beginning – there was a lot of other asthma equipment we needed to learn about.

Asthma Doc gave us a spacer (looks like a plastic tube) to attach to the Middle Son’s inhaler. But then I noticed other people weren’t using a spacer.

Inhalers and spacers

Inhalers can be confusing because there are so many different kinds on the market. Allergy & Asthma Network makes a poster called “Respiratory Treatments”. I love it because it’s easy to see all the different types of asthma medications, and can help families when they’re a little confused. There are controller inhalers, and rescue inhalers. Some are DPI’s (dry powder inhalers) and MDI’s (metered dose inhalers.) Let’s talk about them!

Controller inhalers are just that – they control your symptoms. I once heard a doctor say, “Use your controller inhaler this week, and you may not need your rescue inhaler next week!” Long term controller inhalers control the swelling in your lungs. Think about it – if your lungs are already swollen (have inflammation), and you have an asthma attack or get a cold on top of already injured lungs, you could end with a scary trip to the hospital. I’ve had that happen multiple times with my kids. But with daily use, you can help protect your lungs.

Rescue inhalers – they are used in an emergency or “rescue” situation. Some people think they are a last resort – that they should only be used if they think they need to go to the hospital. Actually, using them can sometimes save a trip to the hospital. Docs usually say “use as needed”, which generally means if you are coughing, wheezing, have a tight chest, are short of breath, etc.

Dry power inhalers (DPI’s) used to be just in a round “disc” form. Now some are a sort of square shape with rounded corner, or some look like a bigger, bloated form of a regular inhaler. The difference between a metered dose inhaler and a DPI, is that DPI’s don’t have a propellant, because it’s a powdered medicine. So YOU get to be the propellant. Which means you have to inhaler FAST to get the medicine out. You can find a list of dry powder inhalers from National Jewish Hospital. 

They also have videos to show how to use different inhalers.

Contrast this to Metered Dose Inhalers (MDI’s). They already have a propellant, so you need to breathe in SLOWLY to suck the medicine down into your lungs. Otherwise, it will just go to the back of your throat and you can even swallow some of the medicine. I like to use a spacer with my inhaler, because I am very uncoordinated (I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, and I have a habit of falling UP the stairs), so I use a spacer. For little kids, they make a spacer with a mask on the end. Kids are supposed to breathe in and out 6 or 7 times with the mask on their face to make sure they are getting all of the medicine. (For adults, we just need to inhale once – and slowly – with our spacer.)

Phew! That’s a little to get you started on asthma equipment. Next post? Nebulizers, peak flow meters, and oximeters.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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