Asthma Management Handbook

Considerations when using inhaled reliever or preventer medicines


Advise patients and carers that new inhalers must be primed before first use, by firing a number of actuations into the air.

Note: Instructions differ between products, so they should follow the manufacturer’s instructions

How this recommendation was developed


Based on clinical experience and expert opinion (informed by evidence, where available).

For patients who use a pressurised metered-dose inhaler (‘puffer’) for their reliever (e.g. Airomir, Asmol, Ventolin), advise patients or parents how to take the medicine during asthma symptoms:

  • For childen, use a spacer whenever possible.
  • Use a spacer for adults whose symptoms are not relieved when using the inhaler on its own, and whenever possible for acute asthma.
  • Shake the puffer before every puff (whether using a spacer or not). If using a spacer, either disconnect the puffer and shake it before reconnecting to spacer, or take the spacer mouthpiece out of the mouth and shake the puffer while still connected to the spacer.


Provide written instructions.

In an emergency, it may not be practical to disconnect and shake before each puff.

How this recommendation was developed


Based on clinical experience and expert opinion (informed by evidence, where available), with particular reference to the following source(s):

  • Barry and O'Callaghan 19941
  • Cyr et al.19912
  • Laube et al. 20113
  • National Asthma Council Australia 20084
  • Rau et al.19965

In clinical settings, when delivering salbutamol by pressurised metered-dose inhaler for patients with acute asthma:

  • Use a spacer.
  • Shake the puffer before firing each dose into the spacer.

Table. Using pressurised metered-dose inhalers in acute asthma

Administration of salbutamol by health professionals for a patient with acute asthma

  1. Use a salbutamol pressurised metered-dose inhaler (100 mcg/actuation) with a spacer that has already been prepared (see note).
  2. Shake inhaler and insert upright into spacer.
  3. Place mouthpiece between the person’s teeth and ask them to seal lips firmly around mouthpiece.
  4. Fire one puff into the spacer.
  5. Tell person to take 4 breaths in and out of the spacer.
  6. Remove the spacer from mouth. Shake the inhaler after each puff before actuating again. (This can be done without detaching the pressurised metered-dose inhaler from the spacer.)


The process is repeated until the total dose is given (e.g 12 puffs for an adult, 6 puffs for a child). Different doses are recommended for patients and carers giving asthma first aid in the community.

New plastic spacers should be washed with detergent to remove electrostatic charge (and labelled), so they are ready for use when needed. In an emergency situation, if a pre-treated spacer is not available, prime the spacer before use by firing at least 10 puffs of salbutamol into the spacer. (This is an arbitrary number of actuations in the absence of evidence that would enable a precise guideline.)

Priming or washing spacers to reduce electrostatic charge before using for the first time is only necessary for standard plastic spacers; antistatic polymer spacers (e.g. Able A2A, AeroChamber Plus, Breathe Eazy, La Petit E-Chamber, La Grande E-Chamber, OptiChamber Diamond) and disposable cardboard spacers do not require treatment to reduce electrostatic charge.

For small children who cannot form a tight seal with their lips around the spacer mouthpiece, attach a well-fitted mask to the spacer.

Asset ID: 62

How this recommendation was developed


Based on clinical experience and expert opinion (informed by evidence, where available), with particular reference to the following source(s):

  • Barry and O'Callaghan 19941
  • Cyr et al.19912
  • Laube et al. 20113
  • Rau et al.19965

Advise all patients using inhaled corticosteroids to rinse their mouth with water and spit after each dose, if possible.

How this recommendation was developed


Based on clinical experience and expert opinion (informed by evidence, where available), with particular reference to the following source(s):

  • National Asthma Council Australia, 20084
  • Rachelefsky et al. 20076
  • Yokoyama et al. 20077

More information

Correct use of inhaler devices

The majority of patients do not use inhaler devices correctly. Australian research studies have reported that only approximately 10% of patients use correct technique.89

High rates of incorrect inhaler use among children with asthma and adults with asthma or COPD have been reported,10, 11, 12, 13, 14 even among regular users.15 Regardless of the type of inhaler device prescribed, patients are unlikely to use inhalers correctly unless they receive clear instruction, including a physical demonstration, and have their inhaler technique checked regularly.16

Poor inhaler technique has been associated with worse outcomes in asthma and COPD. It can lead to poor asthma symptom control and overuse of relievers and preventers.10, 17, 15, 18, 19 In patients with asthma or COPD, incorrect technique is associated with a 50% increased risk of hospitalisation, increased emergency department visits and increased use of oral corticosteroids due to flare-ups.15

Correcting patients' inhaler technique has been shown to improve asthma control, asthma-related quality of life and lung function.20, 21

Common errors and problems with inhaler technique

Common errors with manually actuated pressurised metered dose inhalers include:16

  • failing to shake the inhaler before actuating
  • holding the inhaler in wrong position
  • failing to exhale fully before actuating the inhaler
  • actuating the inhaler too early or during exhalation (the medicine may be seen escaping from the top of the inhaler)
  • actuating the inhaler too late while inhaling
  • actuating more than once while inhaling
  • inhaling too rapidly (this can be especially difficult for chilren to overcome)
  • multiple actuations without shaking between doses.

Common errors for dry powder inhalers include:16

  • not keeping the device in the correct position while loading the dose (horizontal for Accuhaler and vertical for Turbuhaler)
  • failing to exhale fully before inhaling
  • failing to inhale completely
  • inhaling too slowly and weakly
  • exhaling into the device mouthpiece before or after inhaling
  • failing to close the inhaler after use
  • using past the expiry date or when empty.

Other common problems include:

  • difficulty manipulating device due to problems with dexterity (e.g. osteoarthritis, stroke, muscle weakness)
  • inability to seal the lips firmly around the mouthpiece of an inhaler or spacer
  • inability to generate adequate inspiratory flow for the inhaler type
  • failure to use a spacer when appropriate
  • use of incorrect size mask
  • inappropriate use of a mask with a spacer in older children.

How to improve patients’ inhaler technique

Patients’ inhaler technique can be improved by brief education, including a physical demonstration, from a health professional or other person trained in correct technique.16 The best way to train patients to use their inhalers correctly is one-to-one training by a healthcare professional (e.g. nurse, pharmacist, GP, specialist), that involves both verbal instruction and physical demonstration.22, 10, 23, 24 Patients do not learn to use their inhalers properly just by reading the manufacturer's leaflet.23 An effective method is to assess the individual's technique by comparing with a checklist specific to the type of inhaler, and then, after training in correct technique, to provide written instructions about errors (e.g. a sticker attached to the device).8, 21

The National Asthma Council information paper on inhaler technique includes checklists for correct technique with all common inhaler types used in asthma or COPD.

Inhaler technique must be rechecked and training must be repeated regularly to help children and adults maintain correct technique.20, 10, 11 

Technical notes: pressurised metered-dose inhalers with spacers

Manufacturers of most delivery devices recommend shaking the device before actuating. The physical characteristics of each formulation, including the effects of shaking, differ widely,2 but for simplicity it is best always to recommend shaking.

Pressurised metered-dose inhalers (except for those that are breath-actuated) can be used with a spacer. When a spacer is used with a pressurised metered-dose inhaler, delivery of the medicine to the patient’s airways is maximised when the patient takes a slow, deep breath from the spacer after each actuation.15 Multiple actuations of a pressurised metered-dose inhaler into a spacer can reduce the amount of respirable medicine available because aerosol particles can agglomerate into larger particles or become attached to the spacer walls.1

Therefore, the ideal way to deliver inhaled medicines via pressurised metered-dose inhaler and spacer is to shake the device, ask the person to breathe out all the way into the spacer, fire a single actuation into the spacer, and have the person immediately take a slow deep breath from the spacer, then hold their breath for 5 seconds. This process should be repeated until the total intended number of actuations is taken. Patients should be trained to follow these instructions when using their inhalers. Inhaling slowly with a single breath maximises delivery of the medicine to the lungs and minimises deposition in the upper airways when using a manually actuated pressurised metered-dose inhaler with or without a spacer, or when using a breath-actuated pressurised metered-dose inhaler.3 However, slow breathing may not be possible for patients with acute asthma. Tidal breathing through the spacer (e.g. four breaths in and out without removing the spacer) is used in acute asthma and for very young children. First aid instructions should include how to use inhaler and spacer.

In practice, optimal delivery of inhaled medicines involves a balance between maximising the proportion of respirable medicine and maximising efficiency of inhalation by the patient within real-world constraints. The optimal delivery of salbutamol in real-world circumstances is not well defined. For day-to-day use of salbutamol, most adults gain sufficient relief from symptoms when using a pressurised metered-dose inhaler on its own. A spacer may only be needed during a flare-up. By contrast, the use of a spacer is always recommended for inhaled corticosteroids delivered by manually actuated pressurised metered-dose inhalers, to reduce the risk of local adverse effects and increase delivery to the airways.

Many available in vitro studies of aerosol particle deposition in the airways were performed using older CFC-propelled formulations, which are now obsolete. Similar studies have not been performed for current non-CFC pressurised metered-dose inhalers.

Administration of inhaled medicines in children: 0–5 years

To use inhaler devices correctly, parents and children need training in inhaler technique and in the care and cleaning of inhalers and spacers.

Children need careful supervision when taking their inhaled medicines (e.g. at preschool), especially when using a reliever for acute asthma symptoms. 

During acute wheezing episodes, delivery of short-acting beta2 agonist to airways is more effective with a pressurised metered-dose inhaler plus spacer than with a nebuliser.25 In older children, salbutamol has also been associated with a greater increase in heart rate when delivered by nebuliser than when delivered by pressurised metered-dose inhaler plus spacer.26

Dry-powder inhalers are usually ineffective for preschool children because they cannot generate sufficient inspiratory air flow.25

Preschool children cannot use pressurised metered-dose inhalers properly unless a spacer is attached (with mask when necessary), because it is difficult for them to coordinate inspiratory effort with firing the device.25 Note that breath-actuated pressurised metered-dose inhalers cannot be used with a spacer.

Even when using pressurised metered dose inhalers and spacers, drug delivery is very variable in young children.27 The inhaler design may improve spacer technique,27 but will not necessarily improve clinical outcomes. The amount of medicine delivered by inhaler devices to the lower airways varies from day to day in preschool children.25 This variation might explain fluctuations in effectiveness, even if the child’s parents have been trained to use the device correctly.

When administering salbutamol to relieve asthma symptoms in a preschool child, the standard recommendation is to shake the inhaler, fire one puff at a time into the spacer and have the child take 4–6 breaths in and out of the spacer (tidal breathing).28 Fewer breaths may suffice; in children with asthma aged 2–7 years (not tested during an acute asthma episode), the number of tidal breaths needed to inhale salbutamol adequately from a spacer has been estimated at 2 breaths for small-volume spacers, 2 breaths for a spacer made from a 500-mL modified soft drink bottle, and 3 breaths for a large (Volumatic) spacer.29

When using a spacer with face mask (e.g. for an infant too young or uncooperative to be able to use a mouthpiece), effective delivery of medicine to the airways depends on a tight seal around the face. When masks are used for inhaled corticosteroids, there is a risk of exposure to eyes and skin if the seal over the mouth and nose is not adequate. Parents should be advised to wash the child's face after administering inhaled corticosteroids by mask.

Babies are unlikely to inhale enough medicine while crying.26 The use of a spacer and face mask for a crying infant may require patience and skill: the child can be comforted (e.g. held by a parent, in own pram, or sitting on the floor) while the mask is kept on, and the actuation carefully timed just before the next intake of breath. Most infants will tolerate the spacer and mask eventually. The child may be more likely to accept the spacer and mask if allowed to handle them first (and at other times), if the devices are personalised (e.g. with stickers), or if the mask has a scent associated with the mother (e.g. lip gloss). The use of a spacer with a coloured valve allows parents to see the valve move as the child breathes in and out.

Administration of inhaled medicines in children: 6 years and over

School-aged children (depending on the child’s age, ability, and with individualised training) can correctly use a range of inhaler types,30 including manually actuated pressurised metered-dose inhalers with spacers,31 breath-actuated pressurised metered-dose inhalers (e.g. Autohaler), and dry-powder inhalers (e.g. Accuhaler, Turbuhaler).3132

A pressurised metered-dose inhaler and spacer is an appropriate first choice for most children.30

Parents and children need training to use inhaler devices correctly, including inhaler technique, and care and cleaning of inhalers and spacers.

School-aged children are unlikely to use their inhaler device correctly without careful training.33



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