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What is a ventilator?

  • A ventilator is a machine that helps a person breathe. Ventilators are occasionally called "respirators". The use of this term stems from respirator devices used in the mid-20th century. In modern medical terminology ventilators are no longer referred to as respirators. The word "respirator" is now used to describe protective face masks. A ventilator may be needed for a few hours, weeks, or months. Sometimes it is needed for the rest of a person's life.
  • A ventilator blows oxygen into the lungs and removes carbon dioxide out of the lungs. The ventilator is attached to a breathing tube at one end. The tube is placed into the windpipe through the nose or mouth. Sometimes the tube is placed through a hole in the neck called a tracheostomy.

When is a ventilator used?

  • A ventilator is used during and sometimes after surgery when general anesthesia is given. Anesthesia causes sleep and relaxation during surgery. A ventilator helps the person to continue to breathe during surgery.
  • A ventilator can also be used if the person has a condition that affects normal breathing. Common diseases and conditions that can affect breathing include the following:
    • Pneumonia and other lung infections
    • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and upper spinal cord injuries
    • Stroke or brain injury
    • Drug overdose

What else do I need to know about a ventilator?

  • A person on a ventilator will be monitored frequently. He will be made as comfortable as possible.
  • A person on a ventilator cannot cough up secretions. Healthcare providers may need to suction to help clear secretions. Suctioning, coughing, and movement can cause an alarm on the ventilator to sound.
  • Medicines may be given to help decrease anxiety. Sometimes medicine is given to prevent the person from moving while on the ventilator. He will still know what is happening around him.
  • A ventilator can prevent a person from talking and eating. If there is a tracheostomy, the person may be able to talk. If he is unable to talk, he will need a pen and paper to communicate.

How will the ventilator be removed?

  • Once a person's condition gets better, healthcare providers will try to let him breathe on his own. This will begin over short periods of time. The time will increase until the person can breathe completely on his own. The ventilator and the breathing tube will be removed.
  • If he cannot breathe on his own for short periods, healthcare providers will try again later. He may have to remain on the ventilator for a longer period if he cannot breathe on his own.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.