Inhalers for Kids 4 and Up: Types, How to Use, Tips

A Guide to Managing Child Asthma

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Childhood asthma causes mild to severe symptoms that can get in the way of everyday activities and could be life-threatening in certain circumstances. Thankfully, asthma can usually be successfully managed with an inhaler, a handheld device that delivers medications right into the lungs.

Inhalers for kids may contain rescue medication to respond to an emergency asthma attack or maintenance medication that helps prevent attacks from happening.

This article helps you understand the types of inhalers available for kids and how these inhalers work. It offers tips on using inhalers correctly and what to do if your child is too young for an inhaler. 

Toddler boy with asthma learns to use inhaler
FatCamera / Getty Images

Why a Child Might Need an Inhaler

Inhalers are a mainstay of asthma treatment because they either help stop an attack or prevent one from happening. To manage childhood asthma, healthcare providers may prescribe one of three types of inhalers for kids:

Long-Term Control of Asthma

Children usually begin to show signs of asthma before age 5. These symptoms may include frequent incidences of:

  • A cough that lingers for days or weeks and is more pronounced at night
  • Wheezing or whistling when exhaling 
  • Trouble breathing
  • Recurring chest colds

If you notice these signs, a healthcare provider should examine your child. If asthma is diagnosed, long-term control medication may be prescribed. This can include using a controller or combination inhaler daily to prevent symptoms. 

Asthma Attack Treatment

When your child is diagnosed with asthma, your healthcare provider will help you create an asthma action plan, which may include using a rescue inhaler in the event your child has an asthma attack. 

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America identifies attacks as those in the yellow/caution zone and the red/danger zone.

Symptoms of an attack in the caution zone include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Wheezing
  • Waking at night due to asthma symptoms
  • Having any signs or symptoms after exposure to a known trigger
  • Having breathing difficulty when sick with a cold or respiratory illness

In children, symptoms of an attack in the danger zone include:

  • Tightness or pain in the chest 
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Breathing may be shallow and faster or slower than normal
  • Skin around and between ribs or above the sternum is sucked in 
  • Nasal flaring
  • Exaggerated belly breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Tongue, lips, fingertips, and around the eyes appear grayish on darker skin tones and bluish on lighter skin tones

A child who is having an attack with red or yellow zone symptoms should be given a rescue inhaler. At the danger zone stage, you should also call 911 or head to the emergency room.

Asthma Attack Prevention

Some children are diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma (EIA). This is when physical activity may trigger asthma.

In order to prevent an attack, children with EIA may need to use a rescue inhaler 10 to 15 minutes before playing sports or participating in physical activities.

Types of Inhalers

There are three types of inhalers:

  • Controller inhalers are used regularly to keep asthma under control
  • Rescue inhalers are used when an asthma attack is in progress or is about to occur
  • Combination inhalers, which do both

Controller Inhalers

Controller inhalers contain corticosteroids, medications that prevent inflammation. This reduces swelling and the production of excess mucus which contribute to wheezing, difficulty breathing, and other common symptoms of asthma.

Inhaled corticosteroids (ICSs) delivered via controller inhalers are important for asthma management. To effectively prevent symptom flares and asthma attacks, they must be used regularly. For most children, this means several times a day according to a prescribed schedule.

Some children 12 and over who have mild persistent asthma may not need to use an ICS every day, according to asthma management guidelines updated by the National Institutes of Health in December 2020. These children may be able to use an ICS and a rescue inhaler as needed.

When prescribing a controller inhaler for kids, healthcare providers likely will start with the lowest possible dose needed to control your child's symptoms.

Rescue Inhalers

Rescue inhalers are used as needed—when a child feels they're having an asthma attack or is about to based on the onset of symptoms (wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and so on). These inhalers are not meant to be used on a regular basis.

Rescue inhalers contain bronchodilator medication, known as short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs), which work by widening the bronchi (airways) that lead to the lungs. Narrowing of the airways, or bronchoconstriction, is a key aspect of asthma that needs to be treated along with inflammation, swelling, and excess mucus.

The rescue medication prescribed most often for children (and adults) is albuterol (also known as salbutamol), a short-acting beta-agonist that relaxes the airways so they can more easily widen. It's available under a number of brand names as well as a generic medication.

When Should I Worry About My Child's Asthma?

If your child seems to need their rescue inhaler more than twice a week, there may be cause for concern. Let their pediatrician know. Frequent flare-ups of symptoms could be a sign your child's asthma plan needs to be adjusted.

Combination Inhalers

For children 4 and over (as well as adults) who have moderate to severe persistent asthma (the two most severe categories of asthma), your healthcare provider may advise an inhaler containing two medications—an ICS and a drug called formoterol, a long-acting beta agonist (LABA).

This combination inhaler works as both a controller medication to be used daily and as a rescue therapy to relieve acute symptoms.

Inhaler Devices and How to Use Them

Inhalers are devices that allow you to breathe medication right into the lungs. How they work depends on the type of device. The two types of inhaler devices are:

  • Metered-dose inhalers (MDIs)
  • Dry powdered inhalers (DPIs)

While it's ideal to use the medication that controls asthma best, any medication is only as good as how well it is used. MDIs and DPIs each deliver medication a little differently, and your child might feel that one device is easier to use than the other.

DPIs

DPIs are breath-actuated, which means that medicine comes out as your child breathes in deeply and forcefully.

DPIs typically aren't prescribed until children are at least 5 or 6 because younger kids can't inhale strongly enough to get a full dose of medication. The exceptions are Advair Diskus and Asmanex Twisthaler, which both may be prescribed for children as young as 4. Some older children prefer the level of control offered by DPIs.

There are multidose inhalers and single-dose inhalers. For single-dose devices, you must load a capsule with the medication into the device's chamber before use. A multidose device has the medication pre-loaded.

To use DPIs:

  1. Sit or stand straight and exhale completely.
  2. Close your lips tightly around the mouthpiece.
  3. Take one full, quick breath in.
  4. Take your mouth off the inhaler and hold your breath for five to 10 seconds.
  5. Slowly exhale.
  6. Repeat the process if your asthma action plan requires it.

MDIs

MDIs release medication automatically and require coordinating a deep breath while operating the the inhaler. They contain hydrofluoroalkanes (HFAs), a substance that propels the medication with pressure.

(Another type of MDI, which uses chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to pressurize the medication, has been phased out by the Food and Drug Administration because of environmental concerns.)

To use MDIs:

  1. Shake the inhaler to mix medication and, if necessary, prime the inhaler by releasing a few puffs of medication into the air (see device instructions on when this is needed).
  2. Sit or stand up straight and exhale completely.
  3. Position the inhaler upright with the mouthpiece at the bottom.
  4. Follow instructions from your doctor about whether to place the inhaler mouthpiece directly into your mouth between your teeth (move the tongue out of the way), position it one or two inches away from your mouth, or use a spacer.
  5. Start to inhale slowly as you press down on the canister. Continue breathing in for three to five seconds.
  6. Hold your breath for 10 seconds.
  7. Exhale slowly.
  8. Repeat the process if your asthma action plan requires it.

Helping a Child Use an Inhaler

Children may have some trouble learning to use an inhaler. For example, kids who use MDIs often breathe too fast instead of taking a slow, deep inhalation when using the medication. Practicing breathing with your child without the inhaler can help them be prepared to use the device when needed.

Other common issues to work on with children:

  • Helping them not blow out into the inhaler when they need to breathe in
  • Positioning the inhaler incorrectly
  • Remembering to exhale fully before using the inhaler
  • Remembering to hold their breath for about 10 seconds after inhaling the medicine
  • Being able to breathe out slowly afterward

If your child is prescribed an MDI, you can also ask your healthcare provider about a spacer. This small device has a holding chamber that keeps the medicine inside until a child takes a breath so they don't have to coordinate inhaling with activating the inhaler.

Spacers come in different forms, including a mask for infants, toddlers, and children up to 4. A child can use a spacer for as long as they need one, typically up to age 8 to 10.

Inhalers Approved for Children

Many of the inhalers used for adults can also be used in children of certain ages.

Your child's healthcare practitioner may switch your child's inhaler if they think a new medication they are now eligible to use may better manage their condition.

Asthma Inhaler Medications Approved for Children
Short-Acting Beta Agonists Brand Names Age for Use
Albuterol HFA Proair, Ventolin, Preventil 0 and up
Albuterol dry powder inhaler (DPI) Proair RespiClick 4 and up
Levalbuterol HFA Xopenex 4 and up
Inhaled Corticosteroids
Beclomethasone Qvar, RediHaler 4 and up
Budesonide (DPI) Pulmicort Flexhaler 6 and up
Fluticasone propionate (HFA) Flovent 4 and up
Fluticasone propionate (DPI) Flovent Diskus 4 and up
Fluticasone fluroate (DPI) Arnuity Ellipta 5 and up
Mometasone (HFA) Asmanex 5 and up
Mometasone (DPI) Asmanex Twisthaler 4 and up
Combination ICS/LABAs
Fluticasone, salmeterol  Advair Diskus 4 and up
Fluticasone, salmeterol (HFA)  Advair metered-dose inhaler 12 and up
Fluticasone, salmeterol Wixela Inhub 4 and up
Fluticasone, salmeterol AirDuo RespiClick 12 and up
Mometasone, formoterol Dulera 5 and up
Budesonide, formoterol  ​Symbicort, Breyna 6 and up
Adapted from the American Academy of Pediatrics Update on Pediatric Asthma Treatment Options, Doses, Label Changes, July 2020

When a Nebulizer Is Used Instead

Babies and very young children with asthma who aren't yet able to manage an inhaler typically receive inhaled medications via a nebulizer—a machine that turns the medicine into a mist.

With a nebulizer, liquid medication for asthma is placed into a cup. On one side, the cup is connected to a mask that will fit over a young child’s mouth and nose. On the other side, it's attached to tubing. The tubing runs into a motorized device. When you turn on the motor, the liquid medication is vaporized and comes out into the mask.

Babies, toddlers, and young children don’t have to do anything to receive the correct dosage of medication. They just need to breathe in the midst. It can take some time to get your child comfortable using the mask. Arranging a simple activity that encourages them to sit still, like looking at a picture book, will help ensure they get the required dosage.

A Word From Verywell

Asthma is a chronic disease that children don’t outgrow, but they can learn to manage. Understanding how to correctly use inhalers is one step. If you have a child with asthma, their doctor will be able to determine which asthma inhalers are best for them based on their age and the severity of their asthma.

Forming an asthma action plan is also important so your child understands when the inhalers should be used and can feel calm and confident about using them when needed. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does my child need an inhaler?

    Only a healthcare provider who specializes in treating asthma can determine whether your child needs an inhaler and what type. Signs an inhaler may be needed include a lingering cough that lasts for days or weeks, frequent wheezing, trouble breathing, and recurrent chest colds.

  • When can my child use an inhaler?

    Most children, with adult help, can use an MDI with a spacer that ensures the child breathes in the appropriate level of medication. Most kids 5 and up can use a DPI if they can breathe in quickly and strongly.

  • Is an inhaler safe for my child?

    Asthma medications are safe for children and can effectively control their symptoms if used as prescribed. Some research shows the possibility of growth delays in children who use the inhalers long-term, but the risk is considered low.

  • Can a 5-year-old use an inhaler on their own?

    A 5-year-old may be able to work the inhaler and give themselves the appropriate dose of asthma medication, but studies show that children under 11 should still be supervised while administering their own inhaler medication.

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