I was preparing for a surgery and needed my lungs to be in the best shape possible. I had been fighting pneumonia, so I was highly motivated to find the right kind of device. I was given a few natural medications to take using a nebulizer. When I began my search for a nebulizer, I found that device descriptions were often inaccurate.

Descriptions of three devices were used interchangeably —inhalers, nebulizers, and vaporizers. For example, an online site described a nebulizer as an inhaler nebulizer, a vaporizer was called an inhaler, and a vaporizer was called a vaporizer inhaler. In reality, they have very different delivery systems and purposes.

My doctor did not give me much instruction other than the medication to purchase. But what dosage? Did I need to add saline? Was I looking for any particular particle size? Ugh. So let’s at least get the device types down.

INHALERS

We’ll start with the easiest one—the inhaler. An inhaler is a device designed to deliver an exact dosage of medicine, most commonly bronchial dilators. Typically, this is a portable device. The person takes a deep breath to get medicine directly into his or her lungs. There are three types of inhalers—pressurized metered dose, dry powder, and soft mist.

These devices are good for patients with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or cystic fibrosis. Because the device delivers medicine directly into the lungs, smaller doses are needed, and it can start working quickly.

VAPORIZERS

This section does not address vaping—that is a subject for another time. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, vaporizers are devices that produce steam and vaporize medication so that it can be inhaled.

When the humidity level is 30 percent or below, it can cause health issues. Vaporizers produce steam and add moisture to the air to improve health conditions such as dry nasal passages and skin. They can also be used with an inhalant or medication for easy inhalation.

When compared to cool mist humidifiers, steam vaporizers may be more hygienic because they boil the water before disbursal.

NEBULIZERS

A nebulizer disburses medication by turning it from a liquid into a fine mist so that it can be more easily absorbed into the lungs. They typically come in a table top size and portable sizes.

The particle size for devices run from 0.5 Microns to 10 Microns. Often saline is added to medications for better disbursal.

There are two different types of nebulizers – jet or compressor and ultrasonic. Jet or compressor nebulizers use compressed air to create a fine mist and can work with any medication. Ultrasonic devices use high-frequency vibrations to generate a mist. Because of heat transfer, these devices have some restrictions on which medicines can be used.

Using a nebulizer is often called a “breathing treatment.”

And for an extra bonus – HUMIDIFIERS

Humidifiers work by adding moisture to dry air to create healthy humidity levels. They aid in avoiding negative health effects such as dry or irritated sinus passages, cracked lips, itchy skin, nose bleeds, and other respiratory conditions. The come in cool mist and warm mist models.

No medications or inhalants are used with cool mist humidifiers.

This is a very simplified look at these devices to get you started. While this information is not intended to be medical advice or to be exhaustive in any way, it should help you understand the different delivery systems so you can ask better questions when your doctors prescribes their use.