A medical ventilator is a machine that helps your lungs work. It can be a lifesaving machine if you have a condition that makes it hard for you to breathe properly.
A medical ventilator is a machine that helps your lungs work. It can be a lifesaving machine if you have a condition that makes it hard for you to breathe properly or when you can’t breathe on your own at all.
A ventilator helps to push air in and out of your lungs so your body can get the oxygen it needs. You may wear a fitted mask to help get oxygen from the ventilator into your lungs. Or, if your condition is more serious, a breathing tube may be inserted down your throat to supply your lungs with oxygen.
Ventilators are most often used in hospital settings. A doctor or a respiratory therapist will control how much oxygen is pushed into your lungs by the ventilator.
Other names that a ventilator is known by include:
- breathing machine
- mechanical ventilation
This article will go into more detail about when a ventilator may be needed, how it works, and what the risks are.
Not being able to breathe properly on your own is known as respiratory failure and is a life-threatening emergency.
If your brain, heart, liver, kidneys, and other organs don’t get enough oxygen, they won’t be able to function as they should. A ventilator can help you get the oxygen you need for your organs to function.
Many types of health conditions can cause you to have difficulty breathing, such as:
- acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- brain injury
- cardiac arrest
- collapsed lung
- coma or loss of consciousness
- drug overdose
- hypercapnic respiratory failure
- lung infection
- myasthenia gravis
- sepsis, an infection in your blood
- upper spinal cord injuries
- premature lung development (in babies)
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease
COVID-19 and ventilators
Ventilators have also been used on some patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Mechanical ventilation is only for the most severe cases where the lungs are filled with fluid, making breathing difficult. The majority of people diagnosed with COVID-19 experience mild or moderate symptoms.
Get the latest COVID-19 updates here.
If you have general anesthesia for a surgical procedure, you may need to be on a ventilator while you’re asleep. This is because some anesthesia drugs can make it difficult for you to breathe properly on your own while you’re in a sleep-like state.
With surgery, you may need to be on a ventilator for a period of time as follows:
- During surgery. A ventilator can temporarily do the breathing for you while you’re under general anesthesia.
- Recovering from surgery. Sometimes, for very complicated surgeries, a patient may need a ventilator to help them breathe for hours or longer after surgery.
The length of time you’ll be on a ventilator depends on the reason you need help breathing.
If you need a ventilator during surgery, you’ll typically only be on a ventilator while you’re in a sleep-like state. This could range from less than an hour to several hours or more.
If you need a ventilator for a health condition, you may need to be on it for hours, days, weeks or longer. It depends on how long it takes for your lungs to get stronger and to be able to function properly on their own.
A ventilator won’t cure an illness. The job of a ventilator is to keep you breathing while your body fights off an infection or illness or recovers from an injury.
Ventilator duration for COVID-19
According to a 2020 study, the typical duration for mechanical ventilation for patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms is around
8 to 10 days.
A medical ventilator uses pressure to blow oxygenated air into your airways and to remove carbon dioxide from your body.
Oxygen from a ventilator may be pushed into your lungs in one of two ways: with a fitted mask or with a breathing tube.
With a face mask
The use of a face mask to get oxygen into your lungs is known as non-invasive ventilation.
With this type of ventilation, a fitted plastic face mask is placed over both your nose and mouth. A tube will be connected from the face mask to the ventilator, which will push air into your lungs. This method is typically used in cases where breathing issues are less severe.
There are several benefits to this method of ventilation:
- It’s more comfortable than a breathing tube that goes down your throat.
- It doesn’t require sedation.
- It allows you to talk, swallow, and cough.
- It may lower the risk of side effects and complications, such as infection and pneumonia, which are more common with breathing tube ventilation.
With a breathing tube
For more severe cases, you’ll need a breathing tube inserted into your throat and down your windpipe. This is known as invasive ventilation. You’ll usually be sedated before this procedure is done, as it can cause pain and discomfort.
The breathing tube that’s inserted into your windpipe is connected to a ventilator that forces air into your airways so your body will be able to get the oxygen it needs while you heal from your illness or injury.
If you’re on a ventilator for an extended period of time, you may need a tracheostomy. This involves a surgeon making a hole in the front of your neck. A tube will be inserted into your trachea, below your vocal chords, and then connected to a ventilator.
A tracheostomy may also be used to help wean you off a ventilator if you’ve been on it for a long time.
Being on a ventilator while you’re conscious can be very uncomfortable, especially if you’re on a ventilator that has a breathing tube down your throat. You can’t talk, eat, or move around while you’re connected to the ventilator.
If you’re on a ventilator with a face mask, you’ll likely be able to talk, swallow, and cough.
Your doctor may give you medications that help you feel more relaxed and comfortable while you’re on a ventilator. This helps make being on a ventilator less traumatic. Medications that are most often given to people on a ventilator include:
- pain medications
- muscle relaxers
- sleep medications
These drugs often cause drowsiness and confusion. These effects 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 on a ventilator, you’ll likely need other medical equipment that monitors how you’re doing overall. You may need monitors for your:
- heart rate
- blood pressure
- respiratory rate (breathing)
- oxygen saturation
You may also need regular chest X-rays or scans.
Additionally, you may need blood tests to check how much oxygen and carbon dioxide are in your blood.
A ventilator can save your life. However, like other treatments, it can cause potential side effects. This is more common if you’re on a ventilator for a longer period of time.
Some of the most common risks associated with being on a ventilator include:
- Infection. This is one of the main risks of being on a ventilator with a breathing tube. Fluid and mucus build-up in your throat and windpipe can allow germs to accumulate on the breathing tube. These germs can then travel into your lungs. This can raise the risk of developing pneumonia. Sinus infections are also common with a 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. A breathing tube passes through your voice box (larynx), which contains your vocal cords. This is why you can’t speak when you’re using a ventilator. The breathing tube can damage your voice box.
- Pulmonary edema. The air sacs in your lungs can get filled up with fluid.
- Blood clots. Lying in the same position for a long time can increase the risk of blood clots forming.
- Sedation-related delirium. This can be caused by the sedatives and many other medications given to an individual who is on a ventilator with a breathing tube.
- Impairment of nerves and muscles. Lying still for many days, being sedated, and not breathing on your own can result in disorders of your nerves and muscles.
- Fluid overload. This can be caused by continuous infusions, drug toxicity, and renal failure.
- Lung injury. A ventilator can cause lung damage. This can happen for several reasons:
- too much air pressure in the lungs
- air leaks into the space between the lungs and chest wall (pneumothorax)
- oxygen toxicity (too much oxygen in the lungs)
If you’ve been on a ventilator for a long time, you may have difficulty breathing on your own once the ventilator isn’t breathing for you.
You may find that you have a sore throat or aching, weak 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. The medications you receive while on the ventilator may also contribute to your weakened muscles.
Sometimes it can take days or weeks for your lungs and chest muscles to get back to normal. Your doctor may recommend slowly weaning you off a ventilator. This means you won’t be completely taken off the ventilator. Instead, you’ll be taken off it gradually until your lungs are strong enough to breathe on their own without any help from the ventilator.
If you have pneumonia or another infection from a ventilator, you may still feel unwell after you’re off the ventilator. Tell your doctor if you feel worse or have new symptoms, like a fever.
If you’ve been on a ventilator for an extended period of time, many of the muscles in your body will be a lot weaker than they used to be. It may be hard to move around with ease and to do your usual daily activities. You may require prolonged physical therapy to regain your muscle strength and to be able to get back to your normal day-to-day life.
If ventilation is being planned for your loved one, there are some steps you can take to help make things more comfortable for them and reduce their risk of complications:
- Be a supportive and calming presence to help ease their fears and discomfort. Being on a ventilator can be scary, and causing fuss and alarm can make things more uncomfortable and stressful for your loved one.
- Ask all visitors to properly wash their hands and wear face masks.
- Prevent young children or people who may be ill from visiting your loved one.
- Let your loved one rest. Avoid talking to them about topics or issues that may cause them distress.
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 people of all ages, including children and babies.
How long you’re on a ventilator depends on how long you need help breathing or how long it takes for your underlying condition to be treated.
Some people may need a ventilator for only a few hours or less. Others may need it for days, weeks, or longer. You, your doctor, and your family can work together to decide whether using a ventilator is best for you and your health.