Understanding Ventilators

Intubated man in intensive care unit bed.

A ventilator is a machine that helps a person breathe. If someone you care about is on a ventilator, you may have questions.

Why a ventilator?

Ventilators are used in the following ways: 

  • A ventilator is needed when a person can’t breathe well on his or her own. People need to take in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide. A ventilator can help with both functions.

  • Sometimes, breathing takes too much of a person’s energy. If so, the ventilator can take over and do the work.

  • Ventilators are common during or after certain surgeries and for lung illnesses.

How long is it used?

Ventilators are used for a certain length of time as follows: 

  • A ventilator can be used for a few hours to a few months or years. How long it is used depends on why it is needed.

  • If the ventilator is needed for more than a few weeks, the vocal cords can become damaged. To protect the vocal cords, the breathing tube may be placed into an opening made in the patient’s throat.

Keep your loved one comfortable

Here are ways to help your loved one stay comfortable: 

  • A healthcare provider is always nearby to check on your loved one.

  • If awake, the patient will be able to hear, but not speak. Writing pads and other tools can help him or her communicate.

  • Know that medicine given to help the patient relax can also make him or her confused and sleepy.

What you may notice

Be prepared to see the following: 

  • A breathing tube carries oxygen from the ventilator to the patient. This tube enters the patient’s mouth or nose.

  • Monitors, lights, and alarms alert care providers to changes or problems.

  • Additional tubes that may give the patient fluid, nutrition, and medicine. These tubes may also help with other tasks, such as emptying the patient's bladder.

  • Restraints may hold the patient’s wrists. These keep the patient from accidentally pulling out tubes. But they don’t stop him or her from moving or using the button to call for a healthcare provider.

  • The patient may be given medicine that prevents movement. This helps conserve his or her energy. Medicine can also help him or her relax and sleep.

How you can help

Here's how you can help your loved one: 

  • Ask the healthcare provider how long and often you should visit. Some patients may do better with a loved on nearby but others may get too tired.

  • A person on a ventilator can catch some illnesses more easily. Don’t visit if you’re sick.

  • At times, you may be asked to wear a mask over your mouth and nose.

  • Follow any instructions the healthcare provider gives you.

  • If you have concerns or questions, ask the healthcare provider.