What is a spacer?
When you or your child need help controlling asthma symptoms, an inhaler can deliver the right amount of medication fast. But inhalers require you to time a good, deep breath exactly with the release of medication from the inhaler. Sometimes older adults and children have trouble using these handheld devices properly.
To help improve the intake of the misty medication, an inhaler can be fitted with a spacer. It’s a clear tube that fits between the inhaler holding the medication and your mouthpiece. When the medication is released, it moves into the spacer, where it can be inhaled more slowly. The timing between the medication release and when it’s inhaled doesn’t have to be quite so precise.
A spacer is used for a type of inhaler known as a metered dose inhaler. This device releases a preset or metered dose of medication. Usually it includes a type of medication called a bronchodilator. It may also include a corticosteroid. Your dose may be for long-term asthma symptom control throughout the day. Or your dose may be a quick-acting treatment to help prevent symptom flare-ups, or to stop a flare-up before it gets worse. A spacer can be used with both types of medications.
Benefits of using a spacer
The main advantage of an inhaler spacer is that it helps control your intake of the medication. This not only makes sure you get the prescribed amount, but that you inhale it in a way that’s comfortable for you.
Ordinary inhalers require you to press a button that releases the medication, and then take a deep breath immediately. This rapid set of actions can be challenging for some people. With a spacer, you don’t have to rush your intake of the medication. Some spacers even make a little whistle sound if you breathe in too fast.
An inhaler spacer also helps reduce the amount of medication that remains in your throat or on your tongue after you breathe in a dose. You want as much medication going down your airways and into your lungs as possible. A common problem with inhaler use that doesn’t include a spacer is that mistiming your breathing means less medication makes it to your lungs.
Disadvantages of using a spacer
Even though a spacer makes it a little easier to use your inhaler, you still have to focus on breathing in once the medication is released. Medication that isn’t inhaled will settle on the bottom of the spacer.
Because some medication and moisture from your breathing can remain in the spacer, the device needs to be cleaned frequently. This isn’t a time-consuming burden, but it’s necessary to prevent an infection or irritation of your mouth or throat.
You may not need to clean it after every use. But you’ll need to do so at least after every few uses, or if the inhaler hasn’t been used for a day or two. Talk with your doctor about how often your spacer should be cleaned.
How to use a spacer
A metered dose inhaler is a metal canister that contains a spray or mist form of asthma medication. Pressing a button at one end of the canister releases the mist through a nozzle or mouthpiece. The inhaler releases the same amount of medication each time the button is pressed.
You may need to shake your inhaler a couple of times to loosen up the medication inside. Don’t forget to remove the cap that covers the mouthpiece.
If you don’t have a spacer, place your teeth and lips tightly around the mouthpiece to make sure as much medication as possible is breathed directly into your lungs. You can also hold the inhaler an inch from your opened mouth, but you’ll need to press the button and breathe in quickly so that you capture as much mist as possible. Your doctor can help you with the best approach for you or your child.
If you use a spacer, one end of the tube attaches to the inhaler’s mouthpiece. The other end of the spacer has a similar mouthpiece for you to use. Time your breathing carefully with the release of the medication. If you breathe in too early, you won’t have enough breath to get all the medication into your lungs. If you breathe in too late, a lot of medication can settle in the spacer.
Breathing in too fast can also cause the medication to stick to the back of your throat instead of going down your airways. Ideally, you want to take a long, slow breath of about three to four seconds.
Caring for your spacer
The most important aspect of inhaler spacer care is keeping it clean. You can do this with clean, warm water and liquid dishwashing detergent.
Allow the spacer to air dry, rather than drying it with a towel or paper towel. Static can build up inside the spacer, which makes the medication stick to the sides of the tube. Towel strands may also be left behind in the spacer. You don’t want to inhale those. You may use a towel on the mouthpiece if you wish.
You should also clean your spacer before using it the first time. Once or twice a year, have your doctor check your spacer for cracks and to make sure it’s working properly with your inhaler.
Some children and adults prefer using an inhaler spacer. Others would rather get the medication directly from the inhaler.
If you find that using an inhaler leaves medication in your mouth or throat, try using a spacer. It may help get more medication into your lungs, where it’s needed.
Keep in mind there are a variety of inhalers and spacers on the market. The key is to find a system that provides you the relief you need to breathe easier.