What is a mechanical ventilator?

A mechanical ventilator is a machine that helps a patient breathe (ventilate) when he or she is recovering from surgery or critical illness, or cannot breathe on his or her own for any reason. The patient is connected to the ventilator with a hollow tube and uses it until he or she can breathe on his or her own.

Why do we use mechanical ventilators?

A mechanical ventilator is mainly used to make it easier for very sick people to breathe. Another reason is to help raise the oxygen level for these patients. Sometimes, patients receive mechanical ventilation when they have an unpredictable or unstable health condition.

What are the benefits of mechanical ventilation?

The main benefits of mechanical ventilation are the following:

  • The patient doesn’t have to work as hard to breathe;
  • The patient's breathing has an opportunity to become normal;
  • Helps the patient get as much oxygen as he or she needs;
  • Preserves a stable airway; and,
  • Allows medications to work and the body to heal.

It is important to note that mechanical ventilation does not heal the patient. Rather, it allows the patient a chance to be stable while the medications and treatments help him or her.

What are the risks of mechanical ventilation?

The main risk of mechanical ventilation is infection, as the artificial airway may allow germs to enter the lung. Another risk factor is lung damage, caused by either over inflation or collapse of the lung. Some patients may be on a mechanical ventilator for a long time, and may have a hard time being weaned from it. Unfortunately, the mechanical ventilator can prolong the dying process for some patients.

What procedures can help a patient with an artificial airway connected to a mechanical ventilator?

  • Suctioning: This is a procedure in which a catheter (a thin, hollow tube) is inserted into the breathing tube to help remove secretions and waste. This procedure may make the patient cough or gag, and it may be uncomfortable to watch. Please understand that this is an important procedure for keeping the airway and lungs clear of potentially infectious secretions.
  • Aerosolized (spray) medications: A patient may need medications that are delivered through the breathing tube. These medications may be targeted to the airway or the lung and may be more effective when delivered this way.
  • Bronchoscopy: In this procedure, the doctor inserts a small light with a camera into the airway of the patient through the breathing tube. This is a very effective tool for checking the airways in the lungs. Sometimes the physician will take samples of mucus or tissue in order to guide the patient's therapy.

How long does the patient stay connected to the mechanical ventilator?

The main purpose for using a mechanical ventilator is to allow the patient time to heal. Usually, as soon as a patient can breathe effectively on his or her own, he or she is taken off the mechanical ventilator.

The caregivers will perform a series of tests to check the patient's ability to breathe on his or her own. When the cause for the breathing problem is taken care of and the patient can breathe effectively on his or her own, he or she is taken off the mechanical ventilator.

Who are the caregivers who take care of the patient on a mechanical ventilator?

  • Physician: The physician is usually an anesthesiologist, pulmonologist, intensivist, or critical care physician. These doctors have special training in the art and science of mechanical ventilation and take care of these patients every day.
  • Nurse Practitioner: The nurse practitioner helps the doctor evaluate the patient and write orders for therapy that will help the patient get better. Nurse practitioners in the critical care areas are specially trained in the care of patients with artificial airways who are connected to mechanical ventilators.
  • Registered Nurse: The registered nurses taking care of patients on mechanical ventilation have received special training in the care of these patients.
  • Respiratory Therapist: The respiratory therapist is trained in the assessment, treatment, and care of patients with respiratory (breathing) diseases and patients with artificial airways who are connected to mechanical ventilators.
  • Patient Care Associate: The patient care associate is trained to care for patients in a critical care setting.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/07/2014.


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