Understanding Mechanical Ventilation: The Basics

Family and friends who have a loved one in need of ventilator treatment are bound to have a lot of questions and concerns. It’s understandably a stressful time with a lot of things happening quickly – some of which may seem confusing or frightening. In such situations, it can be helpful to have an understanding of the process and what to expect.

Let’s start with some basics.

What is a ventilator?

A mechanical ventilator is a “life-sustaining device” that helps support patients who have difficulty breathing independently1 such as critically ill patients in the ICU, postoperative patients, or individuals with cardiopulmonary disorders2. Mechanical ventilators are also commonly referred to as ventilators, respirators, or breathing machines1. A ventilator is used to maintain healthy oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body for a process known as gas exchange and can be used for short or long periods of time depending on each patient’s unique situation.

How is ventilation performed?

Before starting mechanical ventilation, a healthcare provider will likely administer a sedative to calm the patient and numb the patient’s throat. To connect the patient to the ventilator, a respiratory therapist will insert a hollow tube (artificial airway) either into the patient's mouth and down their throat or directly into a hole in their trachea called a stoma2. The machine will then help the patient breathe until they are well enough to breathe on their own.

How will the patient feel?

Although not always necessary, your loved one may be sedated or receive medication to stay comfortable while they are on a ventilator. Because of these medicines, your loved one may not be able to stay awake for more than a few minutes.4 Patients are not able to talk, but they are often able to hear you and can benefit from your reassuring touch and calm words.

Staying Informed

Your loved one will be watched closely by health care providers including doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists during the entire process. If you have questions or concerns, do not be afraid to ask. Remember, the more you understand, the better equipped you will be to support your loved one and to make informed decisions.

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  1. https://www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/mechanical-ventilation.pdf
  2. https://www.respiratorytherapyzone.com/mechanical-ventilation-made-easy/
  3. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/ventilatorventilator-support#:~:text=Ventilators%20are%20machines%20that%20blow,lungs%20when%20you%20breathe%20out.
  4. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/respiratory-failure
  5. https://www.healthline.com/health/ventilator#what-to-expect
  6. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000458.htm