Nebulizer Therapy – Can It Help Me Breathe Easier?

When to Consider Nebulizer Therapy

Dear Dr. Mahler: I have severe COPD and attend pulmonary rehab sessions at the nearby hospital.  I take Advair in the purple disk twice a day and Spiriva powder in the capsule each morning. One of the other patients at rehab told me that she uses medicines in a nebulizer machine and this helps her breathe much better than when she used different inhalers in the past. Do you think that nebulizer therapy might help me? Tracy from Bellingham, WA Dear Tracy, There are four different delivery systems for inhaled medications to treat those with COPD: metered-dose inhalers (commonly called puffers); dry powder inhalers; soft mist inhalers; and nebulizers. Some examples are shown below. In general, pharmaceutical companies have mainly been developing new bronchodilator medications as dry powders.
Metered-dose Inhaler

Metered-dose Inhaler

Examples of dry-powder inhalers

Examples of dry-powder inhalers

With dry powder inhalers, you need to take a hard and fast breath in – in order to pull the powder out of the device and overcome its internal resistance. Some individuals, especially those with more advanced COPD, may not have enough strength to successfully break up the powder packet in the inhaler device and then inhale the powder particles deep into the lower parts of the lungs. Nebulizer therapy is used frequently to deliver bronchodilator medications to those with COPD who are experiencing a flare-up (exacerbation) both in the Emergency Department and in the hospital. Many patients with COPD find that this approach works better because you just breathe in and out normally when inhaling the medications from the nebulizer, and you don’t have to have to hold your breath as you do with the other delivery systems.
Inhaler machine for nebulizer therapy

Hand held nebulizer

There are four major reasons why your health care provider might prescribe nebulizer therapy: you have difficulty using the other inhaler devices [because of arthritis of the hands and wrists or because of difficulty following instructions (dementia)]; you have difficulty coordinating the steps to release the medication from the device, inhaling correctly, and then holding your breath for as long as possible; you are not able to breathe easier with inhaler devices; AND you do not have adequate force when breathing in to pull the powder out of the inhaler. I suggest that you ask your health care provider whether a trial of nebulizer medications is appropriate, especially since you don’t feel it is easier to breathe with your current inhalers. Both types of bronchodilators (beta-agonists and muscarinic antagonists) as well as an inhaled corticosteroid are available in solutions for use in a nebulizer. These three different types of medications are similar to the Advair and Spiriva dry powder inhalers that you are currently using. Best wishes, Donald A. Mahler, M.D.

Donald A. Mahler, M.D. is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. He works as a pulmonary physician at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, NH, where he is Director of Respiratory Services.