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Home > Services > Surgery > Intubation and Mechanical Ventilation

Intubation and Mechanical Ventilation

What is Intubation?

This procedure helps you breathe when you can't on your own, either due to surgery or an emergency.

Intubation describes the use of an intubation tube (also called an endotracheal tube) to get air into your throat and lungs.

Mechanical ventilation refers to the ventilating machine that pumps the air. 

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Endotracheal Intubation
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Ventilator Side Effects

Complications are rare, but may include:

  • Damage to teeth, lips or tongue
  • Damage to trachea (windpipe), resulting in pain, hoarseness and sometimes difficulty breathing after tube removal
  • Esophageal intubation (when the tube is accidentally inserted into the esophagus and stomach rather than the trachea)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pneumonia
  • Lung injury
  • Infection

Some factors that may increase the risk of complications include:

  • Smoking
  • Neck or cervical spine injury
  • Pre-existing lung disease (such as emphysema)
  • Poor condition of teeth
  • Recent meal
  • Dehydration

Be sure to discuss these risks with your doctor before the procedure.

Preparation for Intubation

If planned for surgery:

  • The night before, eat a light meal. Do not eat or drink anything after midnight.
  • Ask your doctor about any other special directions.

How Long Will It Take?

Less than five minutes.

How Much Will It Hurt?

The anesthesia will prevent pain during the procedure. The tube will cause discomfort and make you cough. It may also irritate your voice box and trachea. You may also receive a muscle relaxant to prevent gagging when the tube is inserted.

The Intubation Procedure

Oxygen Preparation

First, you will wear an oxygen mask for 2-3 minutes. This will ensure that you have enough oxygen in your system during the procedure.

Inserting the Intubation Tube

The doctor will tilt your head back slightly. Then, the doctor will use a tool called a laryngoscope. The scope has a handle, a light, and a smooth dull blade. This tool is used to lift the tongue off the back of the throat so the doctor can see your vocal cords. When the doctor sees your vocal cords, he will stick one end of the breathing tube through them, down into your lower windpipe.

Attaching the Ventilator

Once the tube is in position, the doctor will remove the scope and leave the tube in place. The tube will then be taped to the corner of your mouth. Next, the doctor will attach the tube to a ventilator machine. This machine will move air in and out of your lungs. It can adjust how quickly and how deeply you breathe.

In some cases, the tube will be inserted through the nose instead of the mouth.

Making Sure the Intubation Works

Right after the insertion procedure, your doctor will:

  • Do a chest x-ray to make sure the tip of the tube is positioned in the middle of your trachea
  • Listen to your lungs to make sure that the air is going into them
  • Measure the level of gases in your blood to make sure that the ventilation is working

While Intubated and Ventilated

While intubated, you will receive extra help from nurses and other hospital staff.

You will not be able to eat, drink or talk until we remove the endotracheal tube.

Intubation Removal: Criteria

Before the doctor can remove the tube, you will need to:

  • Be breathing on your own through the tube, without the ventilator attached. You may only be partially awake during this time.
  • Have a satisfactory score on the Weaning Index, which measures:
    • How often you take a breath
    • How well oxygen is getting into your blood
    • How much air you breathe in and out each time you take a breath
  • If you need mechanical ventilation for more than a few weeks, a tracheotomy may be done. In this case, the airway tube is inserted through a hole made in your neck.

After Intubation and Mechanical Ventilation

After you are no longer intubated and have left the hospital, contact your doctor if you:

  • Have difficulty breathing
  • Develop a cough
  • See signs of infection, like fever or chills
  • Tend to breathe in your food or drink
  • Hear musical sounds when you breathe (called stridor)

In case of an emergency, call for medical help right away.

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Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.