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Alternative Names 
respirator, artificial breathing machine

Ventilators are machines that help people breathe when they can't breathe on their own. They are often used in intensive care units for people with a serious injury or illness. Ventilators are also called respirators.

What is the information for this topic? 
A ventilator might be used when a person has: A plastic tube is passed though the person's mouth or nose and into the windpipe, or trachea. The tube is then connected to the ventilator by a flexible plastic hose. The process of placing the tube is called endotracheal intubation. The tube passes through the vocal cords, so the person is unable to speak.

Sometimes the upper airway is blocked, and a tube can't be passed through the nose or mouth. In this case, a tube is surgically inserted through the neck and into the trachea. Placing this type of tube is called a tracheostomy.

Ventilators are used to help control the amount of oxygen and the volume of air flowing into the lungs. In the hospital, ventilators are carefully monitored and adjusted only by people who are qualified to do so. These include respiratory therapists, nurses, and doctors.

Some people need ventilators for long-term or chronic conditions. Examples of these chronic conditions include:
  • spinal cord injuries
  • spinal cord conditions that result in muscle weakness and paralysis
  • severe curvature of the spine, which prevents the lungs from working normally
  • neurologic diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, that cause weakness in the diaphragm muscle, Guillian-Barre` syndrome
  • degenerative muscular diseases, such as muscular dystrophy
In these cases, a ventilator may be used in the home, rehabilitation hospital, or skilled nursing facility. When a ventilator is needed long-term, a tracheostomy is done. When a person is sent home on a ventilator, the family is taught what to do by a home health nurse or respiratory therapist. The family learns how to check the machine, its settings, and the oxygen equipment. Since oxygen is used, the family also learns what precautions to take to prevent a fire. They learn how to care for the tracheostomy to prevent problems like a clogged tube or an infection. The family also learns which symptoms mean that they should call the doctor.

Family members often feel overwhelmed when a loved one is sent home on a ventilator. The home health nurse and respiratory therapist can provide ongoing support and instruction. Families can learn to manage the ventilator and enable their loved one to remain safely within the comforts of home.

Author: Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 19/06/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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