An aerosol inhaler is a medication delivery system in which a chemical propellant is used to spray a fine mist of medication directly into the lungs or nasal passages of a patient. Aerosol inhalers are the most commonly used inhaler devices. They are convenient, are easy to carry around and effectively deliver medication in a spray form, so aerosol inhalers are useful for people who suffer from asthma and might experience a rapid onset of symptoms. An aerosol inhaler can be a lifesaver in some cases.
While once common, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) inhalers have been determined to have a negative effect on the environment, and many countries — including the United States — have begun to phase them out. A newer type of aerosol inhaler, an environmentally friendly hydrofluoralkanes (HFA) inhaler, has been introduced in markets that frown upon the use of CFCs. Some groups claim that HFA inhalers are not as effective as those propelled by CFCs. The environmentally friendly aerosol inhalers also might cost more.
Most aerosol inhalers are metered-dose inhalers, which means that the inhaler, when activated, releases a measured amount of medication to the patient in aerosol form. In order to help the patient push the inhaler and release the medication — and at the same time position the device to send medication into the throat and lungs — most metered-dose inhalers are housed in plastic chambers. The plastic chambers hold the aerosol device, and they usually come with a cap so that the inhaler can be stored and carried easily.
Aerosol inhalers are most easily used by adults, because the device does require a certain amount of coordination. Most children, however, can be taught how to use an aerosol inhaler and can become adept at it with practice. To use the inhaler, one must exhale, place the mouthpiece in the mouth and breathe in while pushing down on the canister. Inhalers usually are used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adults, and they sometimes are used to deliver antihistamines and allergy medications intra-nasally. Antiviral flu medications sometimes must be used with an aerosol inhaler as well.
Less commonly used is the dry powder inhaler (DPI). These inhalers deliver dry, powder medication to the patient. They are even more difficult to use than aerosol metered-dose inhalers, and for that reason, they don’t always provide effective treatment. These are not generally used by patients who have severe asthma or COPD or by children.