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Learning about ventilators


A ventilator is a machine like a fancy computer, with knobs and buttons that are controlled by a respiratory therapist, nurse, or doctor.

  • It has tubes that connect to the patient through a breathing tube placed either in their mouth or anopening through their neck into the trachea (windpipe).
  • A ventilator may also be referred to as a breathing machine or a respirator.
  • The ventilator will breathe for the patient or assist the patient in breathing. It can do all of the work or it can do some work for the patient.

How Does Being on a Ventilator Feel?

Your loved one will receive medicine to be comfortable while on the ventilator. With this medicine, they may be too sleepy to open their eyes.

When someone is on a ventilator, they will not be able to talk. When your loved one is awake enough to open their eyes and move, you can give them something to write with.

The ventilator will make noises and has alarms that will alert the health care team when there may be something to fix.

  • Your loved one will have many wires and tubes on them. Stay calm, this may look scary, but all of these wires and tubes help your loved one be carefully monitored, while waiting to get better.
  • Your loved one may have restraints. These are used to prevent your loved one from pulling out any important tubes and wires.

Why Are Ventilators Needed?

Your loved one will be placed on a ventilator if they are not able to breathe their own. This may be because of a medical condition, an injury, accident, or illness.

When someone is very sick or has a bad injury, they may be too weak to breathe on their own. Using a ventilator allows their body to use that energy for healing and getting better.

Your loved one may need a ventilator to make sure they are getting enough oxygen. A ventilator will give your loved one as much or as little support as they need.

After surgery a patient may need to have a ventilator breathe for them if they have had medicine that causes them to be sleepy. They also need time to heal and get better.

A ventilator will also be used if there are many injuries that require the patient to barely move at all.

Most of the time, a patient will need the ventilator only for a short time (hours, days, or weeks), but, in rare cases, the patient may need the ventilator for long periods of time (months, or even years).

Ventilator Care

A patient on a ventilator will be watched closely in the intensive care unit (ICU).

  • The respiratory therapist will check the ventilator and the patient often.
  • Doctors and nurses therapists will also check on the patient often.

Patients who need a ventilator for long periods of time may stay in a long-term care facility or center or even at home, and they usually have a tracheostomy (a tube that connects the ventilator to the trachea).

Suctioning is a word you will hear a lot when your loved one is on a ventilator.

  • A small thin tube will be inserted into the tube in their mouth or neck to vacuum out mucus that is stuck in the lungs.
  • If this mucus is left in the lungs for too long, it can cause an infection, like pneumonia.

Patients using a ventilator will be watched carefully for infections in their lungs.

When the ventilator is used for more than a few days, the patient may receive food and nutrients through tubes into either their veins or their stomach.

Updated: 3/2/2012

Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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