Ventilation is the same thing as breathing. It's the movement of air into and out of your lungs. Sometimes your breathing needs to be assisted by a ventilator.
What is a ventilator?
A ventilator is a machine that breathes for you—the process is called mechanical ventilation
A ventilator uses pressure to push air into your lungs
Usually the air is mixed with pure oxygen so it contains more oxygen than what's in room air
Doctors set the ventilator to control how often it gives you a breath and how much air you get
A ventilator can do all your breathing or just help out
Why does someone need a ventilator?
You need a ventilator if:
You're not able to breathe
Your breathing is too weak
You might not be breathing or have weak breathing for many reasons, including:
Brain problems: Head injury Head Injuries , stroke Stroke A stroke is a sudden brain problem that happens when a blood vessel in your brain either gets blocked or breaks open and bleeds. Part of your brain stops getting blood. Brain tissue that doesn't... read more , ALS Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Your muscles move when your brain sends a signal to them through your nerves. Motor neurons are the nerves that send your muscles the signals to move. Signals travel from the brain through your... read more
Lung problems: Asthma Asthma Asthma is a condition in which the breathing passages (airways) in your lungs get narrow. When the airways are narrow, it's hard to breathe. Breathing often makes a squeaky musical sound called... read more , COPD Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) COPD is a disease in your lungs that makes it hard to breathe. It's hard to push air out of your lungs. Difficulty pushing air out is called chronic airflow obstruction. Smoking cigarettes is... read more , severe pneumonia Pneumonia Pneumonia is an infection deep in your lungs. The infection involves the small air sacs in your lungs (alveoli). Pneumonia is different from infection of the air passages (bronchi) in your lungs... read more
Heart problems: Cardiac arrest Cardiac Arrest and CPR Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood and oxygen to the brain and other organs and tissues. Sometimes a person can be revived after cardiac arrest, particularly if treatment is... read more , heart failure Heart Failure Your heart pumps blood to carry oxygen and nutrients to the rest of your body. Heart failure is when your heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. It doesn’t mean your heart has stopped... read more
Nerve problems: Spinal cord injury Compression of the Spinal Cord Injuries and disorders can put pressure on the spinal cord, causing back or neck pain, tingling, muscle weakness, and other symptoms. The spinal cord may be compressed by bone, blood (hematomas)... read more , myasthenia gravis Myasthenia Gravis Myasthenia gravis is a disease that causes periods of muscle weakness. Myasthenia is an autoimmune disease that keeps your nerves from passing signals to your muscles Myasthenia gravis happens... read more
Bodywide problems: Drug overdose Overdose Toxicity Overdose toxicity refers to serious, often harmful, and sometimes fatal toxic reactions to an accidental overdose of a drug (because of an error on the part of the doctor, pharmacist, or person... read more , poisoning Overview of Poisoning Poisoning is sickness that results from swallowing, breathing in, or touching something toxic (poisonous). In the United States, more than 2 million people each year are poisoned. This includes... read more , severe trauma
How does a ventilator work?
There are 2 main ways ventilators get air into your lungs:
Through a plastic tube put into your windpipe (called invasive ventilation because the tube "invades" your body)
Through a tight-fitting face mask (called noninvasive ventilation)
Invasive ventilation is used for people who need the most help with their breathing. Doctors can put the tube into the windpipe through:
Your mouth (most common)
A small cut in the front of your neck (called a tracheostomy)
You'll get a tracheostomy if you need to be on a ventilator for more than a few days. A tracheostomy tube goes into your windpipe below your voice box. That way the tube won't push on your vocal cords, which can damage them.
Having a tube in your nose or throat is uncomfortable, so you'll get medicine in your veins to keep you relaxed and comfortable.
Noninvasive ventilation is used if you're awake and breathing pretty well on your own but need some help. If you're unconscious or very weak, noninvasive ventilation doesn't work. That's because your tongue falls back into your throat and air from a mask can't get through.
With both invasive and noninvasive ventilation, doctors program the ventilator so you get the right amount of oxygen and the right number of breaths. The ventilator can tell if you're able to breathe a little on your own and adjusts to just assist your breathing.
What problems can happen with a ventilator?
Problems you might have from a ventilator include:
A collapsed lung ( pneumothorax Pneumothorax Two layers of thin membrane cover your lungs. The two membranes normally touch each other. But sometimes the space between the membranes, called the pleural space, fills up with air or fluid... read more ) from having too much pressure in your lungs
Lung infection ( pneumonia Pneumonia Pneumonia is an infection deep in your lungs. The infection involves the small air sacs in your lungs (alveoli). Pneumonia is different from infection of the air passages (bronchi) in your lungs... read more ) because the tube in your windpipe can let germs in
Bleeding and scarring of your windpipe because having a tube in your windpipe for a long time can irritate it
Lung damage because breathing a high percentage of oxygen for a long time can harm your lungs
You can't eat while you're on a ventilator. If you're on a ventilator for more than a few days you'll need to be fed through a tube Tube Feeding Tube feeding may be used to feed people whose digestive tract is functioning normally but who cannot eat enough to meet their nutritional needs. Such people include those with the following... read more in your stomach.
Will I have trouble getting off the ventilator?
You may have heard that some people have trouble getting off a ventilator. There are 2 possible reasons for that:
The original problem didn't get better
Breathing muscles became weak from not being used
Ideally, you'll need a ventilator just for a little while until your problem goes away. For example, an overdose wears off or treatments stop an asthma attack. But some problems don't go away. For example, a person who has brain damage from a stroke or severe injury may never get better enough to come off the ventilator.
If you're on a ventilator for a long time, your breathing muscles may get weak. In this case, doctors build up your muscles by having you breathe on your own for a little while every day. Your breathing will gradually get stronger until you don't need the ventilator anymore.