COPD Lexicon: Inhaler Terms To Know

Most people with COPD use inhalers. So, what are they? How do they work? Here are some basic terms to help you better understand inhalers.

Basic Terms:


It's a small, hand-held device that allows you to inhale respiratory medicines. They are portable and can be used anywhere, anyplace, anytime. This makes them very convenient for people with COPD.

Metered Dose Inhaler (MDI)

They allow you to inhale a metered dose of medicine. The inhaler contains a small actuator. You press it and a flow is created. This creates a mist for inhaling.


This is a measured dose. It’s a specific amount.


It’s how fast you inhale. It’s a stream of air. You will have to generate enough flow to inhale the mist created by an MDI. So, proper technique is required.

Proper technique

It requires you to exhale fully. Then place the inhaler about 1-2 finger lengths from your open mouth. As you press the actuator, take in a deep breath. This creates the flow needed for the medicine to get to your lower airways where it’s needed. Hold your breath for 3-10 seconds. Keep the inhaler in your mouth until you are done holding your breath. This assures none of the medicine leaks out.


It’s a small, hand-held device that is attached to MDIs. It’s hollow. It helps to break up large particles of medicine so you inhale only small particles. These small particles are less likely to impact into your upper airway and cause side effects. This gives small particles a direct path to your lower airways where they’re needed. They also help improve coordination with using inhalers. They help assure you are using proper technique. They are highly recommended by asthma experts when MDIs are used.


It’s what you do to prepare an MDI to deliver the expected dose. It requires shaking the inhaler well. It then involves wasting 1-4 puffs. This should be done for all new MDIs. It should also be done if an inhaler is unused for several days. How many puffs to waste, and how often to prime, depends on the specific MDI you are using.


It’s the substance inside an MDI that allows it to spray the medicine. Two propellants used over the years are CFC and HFA.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC)

It’s the propellant used in MDIs made between 1956 and 2010. It has been phased out in favor of the new HFA propellant. Scientists recommended it be phased out due to fears it was harmful to the ozone.

Hydrofluoroalkane (HFA)

It’s the propellant used in all current MDIs on the market.

Dry Powdered Inhaler (DPI)

These are inhalers that allow you to inhale a dry powder. They are ideal for certain respiratory medicines. Unlike MDIs, there are many different types of devices used to deliver dry powders. Each brand of medicine uses a unique device. So, if you require more than one DPI medicine, you may also be required to learn more than one DPI device.

Combination inhalers

They are inhalers that contain two or more medicines. Examples include Advair, Symbicort, Dulera, and Combivent.


So, these are some of your basic inhaler terms. If there are terms I forgot to define, let me know in the comments below.

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