What is a Dry Powder Inhaler?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Many people are used to the older form of inhalers, called metered dose inhalers (MDIs). These often work by pressing down on the inhaler top, which shoots a liquid amount of the medicine into the lungs, when inhalation occurs at the same time. They can be a little hard to use, and not all people have the best luck with these. The profile of asthma inhalers is certainly changing, which will please some and annoy others, and there are now many medications that come in the form of a dry powder inhaler or DPI. These don’t require the same level of coordination, though not everyone is expert at using them.

Metered dose inhalers require pressing down on the top of the inhaler, and can be difficult for some people to use.
Metered dose inhalers require pressing down on the top of the inhaler, and can be difficult for some people to use.

The principal difference between a dry powder inhaler and a metered dose inhaler is that there is no “press/squirt/inhale” action. Instead, powder is kept in individual chambers in extremely small amounts. Usually turning the inhaler chamber or clicking a piece on the inhaler frees up the medicine to be inhaled directly into the lungs, in what is usually described as a strong inhalation that must last several seconds. The breath is often held for a few more seconds after the medicine is taken.

With a dry powder inhaler, powder is kept in individual chambers in extremely small amounts.
With a dry powder inhaler, powder is kept in individual chambers in extremely small amounts.

The actual inhalation of breath causes the powder to turn into extremely fine particles that can easily reach the lungs and that won’t produce any type of coughing. Worrying about potential coughing from inhaling powder is often a concern, and it’s easy to see why. A person who accidentally inhales a bit of powdered sugar for instance is likely to remember acute coughing fits thereafter. They should be assured that the chemical processes turning asthma medicine into a powdered form are much more advanced, causing very fine powdered medicine in tiny doses to be effective.

Still, a dry powder inhaler may not be appropriate for everyone. Presently they are most marketed for adults and older children. Very young children might not produce the inhalation necessary to receive all medication needed, and this could also be a concern for those people in the midst of an asthma attack, or with extremely weak breath.

The wave of the future, though, does seem to include the introduction of many dry powder inhaler types. More and more medicines used for things like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other breathing conditions are now being manufactured in dry form. Doctors can of course, recommend these to patients and demonstrate their use. There are also a number of websites offered by respected medical sources that can suggest the best ways to use these a dry powder inhaler; doctor’s advice is still the best source, however. On a final note patients need to pay particular attention to directions on storage of these inhalers, as any exposure to damp may cause damage to the medication.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


My nine year old niece uses a dry powder inhaler just fine. She was carefully instructed by her parents on how to use it. And they keep an eye on her to make sure she's doing it right. Aside from this, it has not been an issue at all. So I think that dry powder inhalers are suitable for children unlike what some other commenters have said.


@fify-- Actually even adults can have difficulty using a powder inhaler effectively in the middle of an asthma attack. Asthma itself causes difficulty breathing so it can be a challenge to produce enough airflow to get the drug deep enough in the middle of a severe attack.

I actually think that a nebulizer is the best type of asthma inhaler. It's the easiest to use and very effective. Both young children and the elderly can use it without problems. Aerosol inhalers work well but they tend to cause more side effects (irritation in the airways) and the propeller requires the use of a gas that's bad for the ozone layer. So most people are preferring nebulizers or powder inhalers these days.


My grandfather was given a dry powder inhaler but he couldn't use it properly. Even though the powder medicine in the inhaler is super fine, it still requires a strong inhalation to travel to the airways where it needs to get to action. My grandfather wasn't able to breathe strong enough for that so the doctor switched him to another type of inhaler. The new one is working fine for him.

So I don't think that children and the elderly should bother with dry powder inhalers at all. Only adults can use it easily and effectively.

Post your comments
Forgot password?