A ventilator is a machine that breathes for you or helps you breathe. It is also called a breathing machine or respirator. The ventilator:
Is attached to a computer with knobs and buttons that are controlled by a respiratory therapist, nurse, or doctor.
Has tubes that connect to the patient through a breathing tube. The breathing tube is placed in the patient's mouth or in an opening through the neck into the trachea (windpipe). This opening is called a tracheostomy.
Makes noise and has alarms that alert the health care team when something needs to be fixed or changed.
How Does Being on a Ventilator Feel?
A patient receives medicine to remain comfortable while on a ventilator. The medicine may cause patients to be too sleepy to open their eyes.
Patients are not able to talk because of the breathing tube. When they are awake enough to open their eyes and move, they can communicate in writing.
Patients on ventilators will have many wires and tubes on them. This may look scary, but these wires and tubes help keep them carefully monitored.
Some patients may have restraints. These are used to prevent them from pulling out any important tubes and wires.
Why Are Ventilators Needed?
Patients are placed on ventilators when they are not able to breathe on their own. This may be for any of the following reasons:
To make sure the patient is getting enough oxygen.
After surgery, patients may need a ventilator to breathe for them when they have had medicine that causes them to be sleepy and their breathing has not returned to normal.
A person has an illness or injury and is not able to breathe normally.
Most of the time, a ventilator is needed only for a short time: hours, days, or weeks. But in some cases, a ventilator is needed for longer periods -- months or even years.
What Kind of Care Does a Person Need When on a Ventilator?
In the hospital, a patient on a ventilator is watched closely by health care providers including doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists.
Patients who need ventilators for long periods may stay in long-term care facilities. Some patients can be at home, but in these cases the patient usually has a tracheostomy.
Patients on a ventilator are watched carefully for lung infections. When connected to a ventilator, a patient has a hard time coughing out mucus. If mucus collects, the lungs do not get enough oxygen. The mucus can also lead to pneumonia. To get rid of the mucus, a procedure called suctioning is needed. This is done by inserting a small thin tube into the patient/s mouth or neck opening to vacuum out the mucus.
When the ventilator is used for more than a few days, the patient may receive nutrition through tubes into either the vein or stomach.
Kollef MH. Ventilator-associated complications, including infection-related complications. Crit Care Clin. 2013;29:33-50.
MacIntyre NR. Principles of mechanical ventilation. In: Mason RJ, Murray JF, Broaddus VC, et al., eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 89.
Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.