What is a ventilator?

A breathing machine called a ventilator or respirator may be used to help people have conditions or illnesses that make breathing on their own very hard. A ventilator is a machine that helps you breathe by pushing oxygen into your lungs and carbon dioxide from your body.

How does a ventilator work?

A ventilator is attached to a tube that goes through your mouth and into your windpipe. While on a ventilator, medicine may be used in an IV to keep you sedated and more comfortable. Sometimes restraints may be used to stop you from pulling the tube. When you are on the ventilator you can’t speak or swallow.

When is a ventilator used?

A ventilator is used for life support in emergency situations. It can be used for a short time, like during surgery or after a sudden illness or injury. It works best if you have a breathing problem that can be fixed. Sometimes people with heart or lung problems who have a setback are placed on a ventilator for a short time until they are able to breathe on their own again. During short-term ventilator use, you are in an intensive care unit (ICU) in a hospital. 

If you are not able to breathe on your own again, you could be on a ventilator long term. After a time in the ICU, surgery may be needed to place the tube through a hole in your neck, called a tracheostomy (or “trach”) and you will need a longer plan for your care. It is important to consider if you would want a long-term ventilator and under what circumstances.

Alternatives to using a ventilator

If you choose not to be placed on a ventilator at any time or do not want it long term, there are other ways to help you to breathe more comfortably:

  • A BiPAP mask pushes air into your lungs through a mask over your nose and mouth instead using of the breathing tube in your windpipe.
  • Oxygen that you breathe through a tube in your nose or a mask over your mouth.
  • Medicine to help if you are short of breath.

These breathing aids may not work as well as a ventilator.

What to consider

Think about how you wish to be cared for and your goals, then talk with your doctor. If you have an illness that can’t be cured, talk with your health care team about the type of help with breathing that may be best for you.

  • Ask your doctor: “What are the chances of a ventilator getting me back to where my health was so that I would no longer need it?”
  • Ask yourself: “If I’m not getting better and my end of life is near, do I want to stay on a ventilator or have care that’s focused on my comfort?”

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