A medical ventilator can be lifesaving when a person can’t breathe properly or when they can’t breathe on their own at all.

Learn about when a ventilator is used to help with breathing, how it does this job, and what the risks are.

A medical ventilator is a machine that helps the lungs work. It’s used for breathing problems that can accompany a variety of conditions.

Other names for a ventilator are:

  • respirator
  • breathing machine
  • mechanical ventilation

Babies, children, and adults may need a medical ventilator for a short time while recovering from an illness or other issue. Here are some examples:

  • During surgery. A ventilator can temporarily do the breathing for you while you’re under general anesthesia.
  • Recovering from surgery. Sometimes people need a ventilator to help them breathe for hours or even days after surgery.
  • When breathing on your own is very difficult. A ventilator can help you breathe if you have lung disease or another condition that makes breathing difficult or impossible.

Some conditions that may need the use of a ventilator include:

COVID-19 and ventilators

Ventilators have also been used on some patients diagnosed with COVID-19 during the 2020 pandemic. This is only for the most severe cases. The majority of people diagnosed with COVID-19 will experience mild symptoms.

Get the latest COVID-19 updates here.

A medical ventilator works to:

  • get oxygen into your lungs
  • remove carbon dioxide from your body

A breathing tube connects the ventilator machine to your body. One end of the tube is placed into your lungs’ airways through your mouth or nose. This is called intubation.

In some serious or long-term conditions, the breathing tube is connected directly to the windpipe through a hole. Surgery is needed to make a small hole in the neck. This is called a tracheostomy.

The ventilator uses pressure to blow oxygenated air into your lungs.

Ventilators usually need electricity to run. Some types can work on battery power.

Your airway includes your:

Healthline

A ventilator can save your life. However, like other treatments, it can sometimes cause side effects. This is more common if you use a ventilator for a long time.

Infection

The main risk of using a ventilator is infection. The breathing tube can let germs into your lungs. This can raise the risk of getting pneumonia. Sinus infections are also common if you have a mouth or nose breathing tube.

You may need antibiotics to treat pneumonia or sinus infections.

Irritation

The breathing tube can rub against and irritate your throat or lungs. It can also make it hard to cough. Coughing helps to get rid of dust and irritants in your lungs.

Vocal cord issues

Both kinds of breathing tubes pass through your voice box (larynx), which contain your vocal cords. This is why you can’t speak when you’re using a ventilator.

The breathing tube can damage your voice box. Let your doctor know if you have difficulty breathing or speaking after using a ventilator.

Lung injury

A ventilator can cause lung damage. This can happen for several reasons:

  • too much pressure in the lungs
  • pneumothorax (air leaks into space between the lungs and chest wall)
  • oxygen toxicity (too much oxygen in the lungs)

Other ventilator risks include:

  • skin infections
  • blood clots

Being on a ventilator while you’re conscious can be very uncomfortable. You can’t talk, eat, or move around while you’re connected to the ventilator machine.

Medication

Your doctor may give you medications that help you feel more relaxed and comfortable. This helps being on a ventilator less traumatic. Those who need ventilators are often given:

  • pain medications
  • sedatives
  • muscle relaxers
  • sleep medications

These drugs often cause drowsiness and confusion. This will wear off once you stop taking them. You’ll no longer need medication once you’re done using the ventilator.

How you’re monitored

If you’re using a ventilator, you will need other medical equipment that monitors how you’re doing overall.

You may need monitors for:

  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • respiratory rate (breathing)
  • oxygen saturation

You may also need a chest X-ray or scan.

Additionally, you may need blood tests to check how much oxygen and carbon dioxide are in your blood.

If ventilation is being planned for your loved one, here are some things you can do to help make things more comfortable for them and reduce their risk of complications:

  • Let them your loved one rest.
  • Be a supportive and calming presence to help ease their fears and discomfort. Being on a ventilator is a scary situation, and causing fuss and alarm will only make things more uncomfortable (if not dangerous) for your loved one.
  • Ask all visitors to properly wash their hands and wear face masks.
  • Avoid visits from young children or people who may be ill.

If you’ve been using a ventilator for a long time, you may have difficulty breathing on your own. You may find that you have a sore throat or aching chest muscles when you’re taken off the ventilator.

This can happen because the muscles around your chest get weaker while the ventilator is doing the work of breathing for you. It may also be because the medications you received when using the ventilator have made your muscles weaker.

Sometimes it can take days or weeks for your lungs and chest muscles to get back to normal. Your doctor may recommend weaning you off a ventilator. This means you won’t be completely taken off the ventilator (going cold turkey).

Instead, the amount of support the ventilator is giving you or the period over which you’re receiving ventilator support might be decreased at first. This will be increased to less support and longer periods before you completely get off the ventilator, usually after a few days or weeks.

If you have pneumonia or another infection from a ventilator, you may still feel unwell after you’re off the ventilator. Immediately tell your doctor if you feel worse or have new symptoms, like fever.

Ventilators are breathing machines that help keep your lungs working. They can’t treat or fix a health problem. But they can do the breathing work for you while you’re being treated or recovering from an illness or health condition.

Ventilators can be lifesaving and an important part of treatment support for babies, children, and adults.

How long you use a ventilator depends on how long you need help breathing or how long it takes for your underlying condition to be treated.

Some people need a ventilator for short-term care. Others may need it long term. You, your doctor, and your family can decide whether using a ventilator is best for you and your health.