Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


Respiratory inhaled therapy 2: choosing an inhaler

  • 1 Comment

The article looks at selecting an inhaler and how the devices should be used


Heslop, K. (2009) Respiratory inhaled therapy 2: choosing an inhaler. Nursing Times; 105: 13.
The second article in a two-part series takes a detailed look at what issues healthcare professionals should consider when selecting an inhaler for a patient. It looks at the differences between the different types and explains how they should be used. Part one looked at the use of pressurised metered dose inhalers (Heslop, 2008).

Keywords: Respiratory illness, Inhaled therapy, Patient education


Karen Heslop, MSc, PGDip in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, BSc, is respiratory nurse consultant, Royal Victoria Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

Medication for respiratory conditions is generally administered via the inhaled route rather than orally or intravenously, because delivering the drug directly to its site of action will mean more rapid onset of action and minimise systemic adverse effects (Brocklebank et al, 2001).

However, specific inhalation techniques are necessary if each type of inhaler is to be used properly. A less than optimal technique can result in decreased drug delivery, which may lead to symptoms persisting and affecting the patient’s quality of life. Inhalers should only be prescribed after patients have received training from a competent healthcare professional in their use and demonstrated a satisfactory technique when checked (British Thoracic Society and Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network, 2008).

There are four main types of inhaler device:

  • Pressurised metered dose inhalers (pMDIs) are activated when the patient breathes slowly and deeply, and include Easi-Breathe and Autohaler;
  • Dry powder devices are activated by inspiration and include Turbohaler, Diskhaler, Accuhaler and HandiHaler. Inspiration disperses the powder drug particles, which are transported in a carrier such as lactose.
  • Nebulisers convert a liquid into an aerosol, which is administered through a mask or mouthpiece. They are used in the treatment of severe exacerbations of asthma or COPD, cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis. They can also be used to deliver antibiotics directly into the lungs of patients with pulmonary infections.
  • Soft-mist inhalers are the newest device; they are propellant free and produce slow-moving aerosols over an extended duration.

Selecting an inhaler

Before they can select a device for a patient, a healthcare professional needs a thorough understanding of how different devices work, how they should be cleaned and what drugs can be used with each one.

To a large extent, the decision will depend on the patient. They must be able to use the inhaler, and children and elderly patients may find some types more difficult than others. Lifestyle and circumstances will make a highly portable device especially important to some. The patient’s preference must be taken into account because, if they do not like a device, they may not use it.

The effectiveness of the device in an exacerbation of asthma or COPD should also be considered. For example, a pMDI with a large volume spacer is as effective as a nebuliser at treating mild and moderate exacerbations of asthma (BTS and SIGN, 2008).

Some devices will require patients to have a greater inspiratory flow than others. With pMDIs (with or without spacers), a gentle slow breathing technique is required. For dry powder devices, 30-60L/min is sufficient, but deposition improves with higher inspiratory flow (Borgström et al, 1994).

There are devices that can measure inspiratory flow - such as the Turbohaler Trainer and the In-Check device - and some that help patients improve technique for maximum deposition.

There is a risk of infection when using inspiratory flow meters between patients, so infection control guidelines must be followed.

Some inhalers have dose counters, which will indicate when the medication is running out, which can be helpful. Patients who need more than one drug may benefit from a combined inhaler such as Symbicort or Seretide, particularly if they pay for their prescriptions.

The cost of the device to the health service should also be considered. The most expensive device may not be the one that costs most but the one that is not being used correctly so more drug is required.

Conditions such as arthritis, poor eyesight or cognitive impairments can affect patients’ ability to use inhalers. Aids are available to help patients use pMDIs and Turbohalers.

How to use the devices


The instructions for this device were described in a previous article (Heslop, 2008).

  • Shake inhaler, hold upright and open cap.
  • Breathe out gently, put mouthpiece in mouth and close lips and teeth around it (the air holes on the top must not be blocked by the hand).
  • Breathe in steadily through mouthpiece. Do not stop when the inhaler puffs. Hold breath for about 10 seconds.
  • Hold inhaler upright and immediately close the cap.


  • Unscrew the cover and lift it off. Check the window to ensure the device contains enough medication.
  • Hold the Turbohaler upright in one hand. With the other, twist the grip fully in one direction as far as it will go, then twist back as far as it will go. A click should be heard.
  • Breathe out gently. Then place the mouthpiece between your lips and breathe in through your mouth as deeply and hard as you can.
  • Take the Turbohaler out of the mouth and breathe out slowly.
  • Replace the cover.


  • Take off the mouthpiece cover.
  • To load a disk, pull out the white tray gently. Place the disk on the wheel so that the numbers face upwards, slide the tray back in.
  • Hold the corners of the tray and slide the tray out and in. This will rotate the disk. Stop when the highest number is reached.
  • Keep the Diskhaler level. Lift up the back of the lid until it is fully upright. This will pierce the blister. Close the lid.
  • Breathe out as far as is comfortable.
  • Keep the Diskhaler level and raise it to your mouth. Place the mouthpiece between your teeth and close your lips firmly around it.
  • Suck in through your mouth, quickly and deeply.
  • Hold your breath and remove the Diskhaler from your mouth. Hold your breath for 10 seconds.
  • Turn the disk to the next number by gently pulling out the tray and pushing it in once.


  • Hold the outer case in one hand and put the thumb of your other hand on the thumb grip and push until you hear a click.
  • Hold the inhaler with the mouthpiece towards you. Slide the lever away from you, as far as it will go - until it clicks. This opens a blister. A counter records how many doses remain.
  • Breathe out as far as possible. Put the mouthpiece to your lips. Suck in quickly and deeply.
  • Remove the Accuhaler from your mouth and hold your breath for about 10 seconds.
  • Close the Accuhaler by sliding the thumb grip back towards you, as far as it will go. It will click when it is shut.


  • Open the dust cap of the HandiHaler by pressing the green piercing button. Pull the dust cap upwards and pull up the mouthpiece ridge.
  • Remove a capsule from a blister and insert it in the centre chamber.
  • Close the mouthpiece until you hear a click, leaving the dust cap open. Be sure that the mouthpiece sits firmly against the grey base.
  • Hold the device with the mouthpiece upwards and press the green piercing button until it is flush against the base, and release to pierce the capsule. Breathe out completely.
  • Hold the device by the grey base, being careful not to block the air intake vents. Raise the inhaler to your mouth and close your lips tightly around the mouthpiece.
  • Keep you head upright and breathe in slowly and deeply. You should hear or feel the capsule vibrate.
  • Breathe in until your lungs are full. Hold your breath for as long as is comfortable and remove the inhaler from your mouth.
  • To ensure you get the full dose, breathe out completely and inhale again without pressing the piercing button.
  • Open the mouthpiece, tip out the used capsule and discard. Close the mouthpiece and dust cap.


Before prescribing treatment, healthcare professionals need to consider which inhaler would be most appropriate. However, choosing a device can be problematic and there are many issues to consider. If a patient struggles to use any inhaler, an alternative device should be sought.

  • 1 Comment

Related files

Readers' comments (1)

  • The in check dial is the best device for measuring whether a patient can use a certain inhaler and should be used by all those who carry out COPD or Asthma reviews. It is produced independently of the companies who produce the medications, unlike the turbo whistle, limiting bias. Devices like the turbohaler are actually very hard to inhale to get correct deposition, most people struggle with this device epecially those with COPD. MDI with spacer or Accuhaler i find are the most efficient.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs