Trachea

Overview

What is the trachea?

Your trachea (TRAY-kee-uh) is a long, U-shaped tube that connects your larynx (voice box) to your lungs. The trachea is often called the windpipe. It's a key part of your respiratory system.

When you breathe in, air travels from your nose or mouth through your larynx. It then passes through your trachea to your bronchi. Your bronchi carry the air to your lungs.

What is the tracheobronchial tree?

Your trachea is part of your tracheobronchial tree. The tracheobronchial tree is where air travels to your lungs and exchanges gases (carbon dioxide and oxygen).

Your tracheobronchial tree includes:

  • Trachea.
  • Bronchi (BRAWN-kai), the large tubes that connect your windpipe and lungs.
  • Bronchioles (BRAWN-key-ols), the lower portions of your bronchi that get smaller and spread out through your lungs.

Function

What does the trachea do?

Your trachea’s main function is to carry air in and out of your lungs. Because it’s a stiff, flexible tube, it provides a reliable pathway for oxygen to enter your body.

How does your trachea function with your respiratory system?

Your trachea works with the rest of your respiratory system to help you breathe. When you inhale, air moves:

  • From your nose and mouth into your trachea.
  • From your trachea into your left and right bronchi.
  • Through your bronchi and into bronchioles in your lungs.
  • Into small sacs in your lungs called alveoli, where your body exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide (gas exchange).

When you breathe out or exhale, your body performs these motions in reverse to carry carbon dioxide out of your body.

Anatomy

How big is the trachea?

In most people, the trachea is about 4 inches (10 centimeters) long — about the width of your hand. It is about an inch (2.5 centimeters) wide — about as big across as an adult’s finger.

Where is the trachea located?

Your trachea sits in your lower neck and upper chest, below your larynx. It is behind the notch at your lower throat, between the inside edges of your collarbones.

In a diagram of your trachea and other respiratory organs, you can see the trachea between the top lobes of the lungs. It is in front of your esophagus (tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach).

What are the parts of the trachea?

The trachea has two parts:

  • Cervical trachea (in your neck).
  • Thoracic trachea (in your chest).

What is the trachea’s structure?

Your trachea is made up of 16 to 20 rings of cartilage. Cartilage is a firm yet flexible tissue. It is your body’s main type of connective tissue.

A moist tissue called mucosa lines each ring of tracheal cartilage. Mucosa have cells called goblet cells. Goblet cells produce a sticky substance called mucus. When you inhale, the mucus traps dust or other small debris to keep it from traveling to your lungs.

In the trachea’s inner layer, you have small, hair-like structures called cilia. Cilia move in rhythm to push mucus out of your trachea so that you either expel or swallow it.

Between each ring of cartilage in your trachea, you have a muscle called the trachealis. When you expel mucus through a cough, your trachealis muscle contracts to help you expel air more forcefully.

Conditions and Disorders

What conditions and disorders affect the trachea?

Several conditions can affect your trachea, including:

  • Tracheal cancer: Cancer that starts in your windpipe.
  • Tracheal obstruction: A blockage in your upper airway, which includes your trachea, larynx or pharynx (throat).
  • Tracheal stenosis: Airway narrowing that restricts your breathing.
  • Tracheitis: Inflammation in your trachea, often because of a cold or other infection that causes coughing.
  • Tracheoesophageal fistula: An irregular connection (hole) in one or more places between your esophagus and your trachea.
  • Tracheomalacia: Trachea collapsing in on itself, usually in newborns.

Care

How can I keep my trachea healthy?

To keep your trachea, lungs and entire respiratory system healthy, you can:

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight for your body type, age and sex.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Change air filters and clean your home regularly.
  • Exercise consistently to strengthen your lungs and heart.
  • Limit your exposure to air pollution.
  • Quit smoking or using other tobacco products.
  • Use protective gear such as a face mask if you are frequently around allergens, dust or chemical fumes.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I call my healthcare provider?

You should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department if you experience any signs of respiratory distress. Signs of respiratory distress include:

  • Chest retractions, when your chest appears to sink in with each breath.
  • Gray, bluish or pale color inside or around your mouth.
  • Grunting.
  • Increased breathing for no known reason.
  • Nose flaring.
  • Sweating with no increase in body temperature.
  • Wheezing (a tight whistling sound while breathing).

A note from Cleveland Clinic

The trachea is the tube that connects your voice box with your bronchi in your lungs. It's a key part of the system that helps you breathe. Your trachea is made of thick rings of cartilage. A substance called mucosa lines this cartilage. Mucosa produces mucus, which traps dust, allergens or other particles to keep them from traveling to your lungs. You can help your entire respiratory system stay healthy by avoiding secondhand smoke, limiting your exposure to air pollution and using protective gear when you are around allergens or chemical fumes.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/20/2021.

References

  • Forum of International Respiratory Societies. The Global Impact of Respiratory Disease – Second Edition. (https://www.who.int/gard/publications/The_Global_Impact_of_Respiratory_Disease.pdf) Sheffield, European Respiratory Society, 2017 [PDF]. Accessed 9/27/2021.
  • Mieczkowski B, Seavey BF. Anatomy, Head and Neck, Trachea. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448070/) In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Accessed 9/27/2021.
  • National Cancer Institute. Larynx & Trachea. (https://training.seer.cancer.gov/anatomy/respiratory/passages/larynx.html) Accessed 9/27/2021.

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