Many medications for respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are taken by using a metered dose inhaler (MDI), also referred to as a hydrofluoroalkane (HFA) inhaler. These handheld devices — one of several types of inhalers used to treat asthma and COPD — are pressurized canisters of aerosol medication in a plastic container with a mouthpiece. They use a chemical propellant to release medication from the canister.
Many individuals use a plastic tube called a spacer with their metered dose inhaler, which can help ensure that the full dose of medication is received. Spacers may also be used to reduce side effects of corticosteroid inhalers such as mouth and throat irritation. Ask your doctor if a spacer is right for your health needs.
Taking your medication exactly as prescribed is critical to managing symptoms of asthma, COPD, and other lung diseases. If you and your doctor have decided that a metered dose inhaler is a good method of medication delivery for your treatment plan, it’s important to learn about proper use and cleaning of the device. Below, we explain how to use a metered dose inhaler with and without a spacer and share other considerations when using these devices.
How to use a metered dose inhaler
The steps below offer a general overview of how to use a metered dose inhaler correctly. Consult with your doctor for more specific instructions. If using your inhaler for the first time, or if it’s been at least two weeks since your last use, be sure to prime your inhaler by spraying several puffs into the air to ensure that it is working.
1. Remove the cap from the inhaler and shake the inhaler for a few seconds. If using a spacer, remove the cap from the spacer and place the inhaler into the open end of the spacer.
2. If you are using your inhaler without a spacer, exhale completely and place the inhaler’s mouthpiece in your mouth and seal your lips around it. If you are using a spacer, place the spacer’s mouthpiece in your mouth first and then exhale completely.
3. Begin to inhale slowly, pressing down on the canister once.
4. Continue to inhale slowly and deeply for about five seconds.
5. Hold your breath for ten seconds so that the medication can enter your airways.
6. If your doctor has instructed you to take more than one puff of your medication, repeat these steps as needed, waiting about a minute between puffs.
If taking a corticosteroid medication, rinse your mouth with water after each dose to prevent mouth and throat irritation and oral yeast infections. Using a spacer will also minimize the chance of these side effects.
Cleaning your metered dose inhaler and spacer
Most metered dose inhalers can be cleaned by removing the medication canister and rinsing the plastic container under warm running water. If you are unable to remove the canister from the container, wipe the mouthpiece with a cloth or cotton swab. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for your inhaler as needed.
To clean your spacer, remove the soft ring at the end and soak both the tube and ring in warm water with light soap. Clean and rinse thoroughly and let the pieces air dry.
Frequency of cleaning depends on how often you take your medication. Consult with your doctor about when to clean your inhaler and spacer.
Keeping track of medication in your inhaler
It’s important to keep track of how much medication is left in your metered dose inhaler so that you can stay on top of refills and avoid any missed doses. For many metered dose inhalers, the total number of puffs will be printed on the medication canister. You must discard your inhaler after you have used that many puffs even if your inhaler continues to dispense medication. Priming puffs count toward the total number of puffs.
If you use a metered dose inhaler every day to take maintenance medication, divide the total number of puffs in your inhaler by the number puffs you take every day. That number is how many days you can use your inhaler before you need a refill. If you use your metered dose inhaler as needed for quick relief, you’ll have to keep track of each individual puff. Some metered dose inhalers now come with built-in counting devices, and there are also external dose counters that can attach to the inhaler. Ask your healthcare provider for recommendations.
Other methods of medication delivery
There are other delivery methods available for asthma and COPD medications. Your healthcare provider can advise you on the best option for your individual treatment plan.
Dry powder inhalers are another option for medication delivery. Like metered dose inhalers, dry powder inhalers are a small handheld device, but the medication is in the form of a dry powder. Many dry powder inhalers provide a visual indication that the full dose of medication has been delivered, which is helpful for many individuals, as well as a built-in dose counter.
You can also take most asthma and COPD medications using a nebulizer, which transforms liquid medication into a fine mist. Nebulizers take longer than inhalers to deliver medication, but they are often helpful for those who find it difficult to properly use an inhaler. Many children with asthma use nebulizers.
Breathe easier with a better pharmacy
Our team of pharmacists is here to help you get started with your medication for asthma or COPD. We can walk you through the steps of using your inhaler, discuss potential side effects, and answer any other questions you may have. In addition, we offer free, same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills in our app to make it as simple as possible to stay on track with managing your asthma.
Reach out any time through in-app secure messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.