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A mechanical ventilator is a device that pumps air into the lungs of a person with severe respiratory failure. The air in a ventilator often has a higher percentage of oxygen than room air.

COVID-19 can cause respiratory symptoms like coughing, trouble breathing, and shortness of breath. In severe cases, it can lead to a life threatening condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Ventilators can be lifesaving for people with severe respiratory symptoms. Roughly 2.5 percent of people with COVID-19 will need a mechanical ventilator.

Keep reading as we explain how ventilators are used to help people with severe COVID-19 symptoms.

COVID-19 is the name of the condition caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, which emerged in late 2019. It falls into a group of viruses called coronaviruses. There are hundreds of types of coronaviruses, but only seven are known to affect humans.

Four of these viruses cause mild disease, but three can cause potentially severe respiratory infections:

The virus that causes COVID-19 can enter your body through your nose, mouth, or eyes. Once it enters your body, it can work its way to your lungs, where it’s thought to invade epithelial cells that line your airways.

Inflammation caused by the infection can interfere with your lungs’ ability to clear fluid and debris. This buildup can lead to hypoxemia, meaning your body becomes deprived of oxygen.

A ventilator has the lifesaving task of supporting the lungs. These machines can provide air with an elevated oxygen content and create pressure in your lungs to assist with breathing. They also help clear away carbon dioxide and rebalance your blood’s pH levels.

Mechanical ventilators are connected to a tube that goes down your throat. They’re often used in the intensive care units (ICUs) of hospitals to help people with severe COVID-19 symptoms. However, many hospitals have been running into shortages.

These ventilators assist your lungs by helping maintain optimal air pressure and providing your lungs with oxygen. The ventilator can either partially or fully take over the breathing process for you.

Mechanical ventilators can be crucial in situations where you’re not able to adequately breathe on your own. They aren’t a cure for COVID-19, but they can support your body while it fights off the infection.

Generally, you’ll be given a sedative. In severe cases of acute respiratory distress syndrome, you’ll be deeply sedated. You’re likely in a state of confusion when you’re on a ventilator, and a sedative can help prevent you from injuring yourself if you attempt to remove the tube.

During the first wave of COVID-19, about 75 percent of people admitted to critical care units were placed on a mechanical ventilator. Now the rate is only about half of that, since medical professionals have more knowledge about how to best treat the disease.

Being put on a ventilator is considered a high-risk procedure due to the potential complications. It also puts healthcare workers at risk by exposing them to the virus.

One of the most common complications of using a mechanical ventilator is pneumonia, since the breathing tube allows bacteria and viruses to easily reach your lungs. Pneumonia is an infection of your lungs.

People with ventilators are also at an elevated risk for developing sinus infections.

Other complications include:

The amount of time you need to be on a ventilator depends on the severity of your condition and how long it takes you to breathe on your own. It may only be a few hours, or it could be as much as 2 or 3 weeks, or even longer.

A study published in August 2020 found that two small groups of people admitted to an ICU for COVID-19 spent an average time of 7.97 and 9.85 days on a mechanical ventilator.

The process of coming off a ventilator use can take from days to months. You will gradually wean off the ventilator once you can breathe on your own.

In the beginning, a healthcare professional may slowly decrease the percentage of oxygen in the air that the ventilator pushes in your airways. Once the ventilator is providing you minimal support, a healthcare professional will try letting you breathe on your own and then removing your breathing tube.

Your muscles may be weak after getting support from the ventilator and may need some time to get stronger before you are ready to come off. If you aren’t able to breathe on your own without the ventilator, your healthcare provider will reattach it and you’ll try again at a future time.

In general, the longer you’re on a ventilator, the slower the weaning process.

Up to 60 percent of people with COVID-19 will need to go back on a ventilator 24 to 48 hours after weaning.

If somebody needs to go on a ventilator, it means that they have severe symptoms of COVID-19. Once the disease has progressed to the point that a person needs a ventilator, it’s often fatal.

The current survival rate of people needing to use a ventilator varies widely between studies.

A January 2021 study sought to calculate the death rate among 57,420 people around the world who needed to go on a mechanical ventilator due to severe COVID-19 symptoms.

The researchers estimate that the death rate could be anywhere from 43 to 64 percent. The death rate was estimated to be 47.9 percent in people under the age of 40 and 84.4 percent in people over the age of 80.

Researchers are continuing to look at when the best way to implement ventilators in COVID-19 treatment. Some hospitals are running into ventilator shortages so researchers are looking at whether anti-inflammatory drugs may be an effective alternative treatment in some cases.

COVID-19 can lead to severe respiratory symptoms and an inability to breathe in an adequate amount of oxygen. A ventilator can help save the lives of some people with COVID-19 by supporting their lungs until their bodies can fight off the virus.

Ventilators also come with risks such as pneumonia or lung damage. Researchers are continuing to figure out the best time to start and end ventilator treatment in people with severe COVID-19.