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Resource type: Article

Ventilator or breathing machine

What is a ventilator?

The ventilator is also sometimes called a breathing machine or life support machine. Many patients with COVID-19 will need this sort of help with their breathing. 

How does a ventilator work?

The ventilator or breathing machine is connected to the patient via a tubing system and a tube that is inserted into the patient's mouth and windpipe (a breathing tube, endotracheal or ET tube) .Sometimes the patient is connected to the ventilator via a tube that is inserted through the neck and into the windpipe (a tracheostomy or "tracky" tube). This tubing allows the ventilator or breathing machine to push air and oxygen (under varying amounts of pressure) into the patient's lungs. Patients are given drugs to make them sleepy and comfortable before being connected to the ventilator.Patients rarely remember this procedure.

How can you tell if the patient is getting the right amount of help from the ventilator?

The ventilator is a very sophisticated piece of equipment which can also monitor how deeply and efficiently the patient can breathe by themselves. It also has an alarm system that can tell us whether the patient is struggling or coughing.The nurses and doctors use this information, along with the patient's other vital signs, to make sure that the patient is getting the right amount of help with their breathing. They also take blood samples to check the oxygen levels in the bloodstream.

How do patients get off the ventilator?

Our aim is to disconnect the patient from the ventilator or breathing machine as soon as it is safe to do so.This depends on a number of things, such as how ill,stable or awake the patient is and how well they are able to breathe by themselves."Weaning" is the process through which we gradually reduce the amount of support delivered by the ventilator. It can be either a straightforward or a complicated process which requires careful monitoring and skill.As soon as the patient is able to breathe well enough by themselves, the breathing tube will be removed (this procedure is called "extubation").