Your family member or friend has been placed on a ventilator. This can be scary. It helps to
know why ventilators are used and how they help people to get better. The purpose of this
handout is to give you the basics about ventilators and to answer common questions.
What Will I See?
The patient may have a plastic breathing
tube coming from the nose or mouth. This
is called an endotracheal tube or ET tube.
Or, a tube may be placed through an opening
directly into the throat. This is called a
tracheostomy. In either case, the tube goes
down the throat, between the vocal cords
and into the large airway of the lungs. The
breathing tube is connected to a hose. These
hoses connect to a ventilator—a large,
square machine that makes a soft, rhythmic
noise as it gives each breath. Small lights
may flash and numbers will be displayed as
the person breathes.
Why Is a Ventilator Needed?
In most cases, the ventilator is used to help a
person breathe, while other problems or
illnesses are corrected. For instance, burns
to the mouth and throat may cause swelling
severe enough to close off the breathing
airways. A breathing tube keeps the airway
open. After surgery, sometimes people need
help breathing until their anesthetic wears
off. Lung diseases, infections, severe injury
or illness can increase the workload of
breathing. The ventilator takes this work
away, leaving the person more energy for
Why Can't the Person Talk?
In order to talk, air must pass between the
vocal cords. When the person breathes, all
of the air goes through the tube, not passing
the vocal cords at all. The person may be
able to mouth words, but no sound will
This may be frustrating if the person wants
to talk to you. Have the person write notes
or ask simple “yes and no” questions that
can be answered by nodding or shaking the
head. Ask the health care team to help out.
Even though the person can’t talk to you,
you should still talk to them. The reassuring
voice of someone close can be the best
medicine for the mind. Let the person know
that when the tube comes out he or she will
be able to talk again.
Is It Painful?
A breathing tube may be uncomfortable and
can make some people anxious. People can
get medicines to help them relax. After a
while, most people become used to the tube.
Moving or pulling the breathing tube will
only slow healing.
How Will the Person Eat?
People on ventilators cannot eat by mouth
because the breathing tube prevents them
from swallowing. Most often a feeding tube
is placed in the nose or mouth. If this can’t
be done, the person may be fed through the
veins. Once the breathing tube is out, they
can return to eating by mouth.
How Does Suctioning Work?
Normally, when a person coughs, secretions
are brought up to the back of the mouth and
either swallowed or spit out. With a
breathing tube in place, normal coughing
cannot occur. In order to keep the breathing
tube clear, a small tube is placed in the
breathing tube and the secretions are sucked
out. This is called suctioning.
The staff will listen to the person’s lungs
often to see if suctioning is needed. You
may be asked to step out of the room during
How Do I Know that the Ventilator Is
Respiratory therapists work with the nurses
and doctors 24 hours a day to make sure that
the ventilator is working right. They will
check the ventilator at least every four hours
and adjust it as needed. Routine blood
samples will also tell us how the person is
doing while on the ventilator. We can adjust
the settings on the machine as the person
What If Something Goes Wrong?
The ventilator has alarms that warn the
medical team right away if something is
wrong. The alarms are loud and make
different sounds for different problems. The
team knows which alarm needs instant
Bags with oxygen are kept at the bedside so
the staff can give the person breaths if
needed. It is very rare for a ventilator to
malfunction. Extra machines are kept
within the hospital to be used as back-ups.
How Does a Person Get Off the
Just as a baby is weaned from a bottle, a
person is weaned from a ventilator. This
may be a slow process—sometimes with
backward steps. The final goal is to get the
breathing tube out.
The nurse or respiratory therapist may refer
to the weaning mode on the ventilator as
pressure support. Pressure support is an
ordered setting on the ventilator where the
patient takes each breath on his or her own,
as opposed to other ventilator settings where
the ventilator gives a set amount of breaths
to the patient.
During weaning, the person is closely
watched. If the person needs more help
from the ventilator, it will be given.
Because each person's condition is unique,
weaning from the ventilator varies.
As you can see, the ventilator is important to recovery. By decreasing the work it takes to
breathe and by giving extra oxygen, the ventilator gives a person more energy for healing. The
built-in alarm system helps to detect any problems. The staff is nearby to answer the alarms and
reassure you. The ventilator plays a major part in bringing the person back to health as quickly
If you have questions or concerns, please talk with us. We are here to help you.
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 6/2016. University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#4437.