What is a mechanical ventilator?

A mechanical ventilator is a breathing machine that does the breathing for people in the hospital who are unconscious, allowing their lungs to rest. Sometimes a sticky substance builds up in the tubes connecting the chest and the breathing machine. A nurse will use a thin tube to suck out the sticky substance. This process is noisy and it might make people cough, but they won't feel a thing.

Dr. Cathy Provins-Churbock, PhD
Critical Care Medicine Specialist

A ventilator is also known as a "respirator" or "breathing machine."  The machine is used to deliver breaths to a patient who is unable to effectively breath on their own. These machines may be used temporarily or permanently (as in long term care).

Use of a ventilator is also commonly referred to as "life support" or life sustaining equipment. This means that without the machine the patient would not survive. In some cases this is true. It is important for you to discuss with your family members your and their end of life wishes so these can be communicated to your healthcare provider if need be.

Deb Cordes
Deb Cordes on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Specialist

A ventilator is a type of equipment that is used in the ICU to assist people in breathing when they are unable to do so themselves. The ventilator is attached to a tube placed in the patient's airway so it can deliver breathes into the lungs of the patient. The ventilator can be set to deliver a certain amount of breathes per minute just like if the patient was breathing normally. As the patient begins to improve and breathe on their own the ventilator and tube can be removed.

Alvin Jeffery
Pediatric Nursing Specialist

A mechanical ventilator (also simply known as a ventilator or vent) is any device which either helps with or completely replaces a person's need to breath. People normally breath by contracting their diaphragms which pulls air into the lungs, and then the diaphragm relaxes which allows air to leave the lungs. 

When this normal process is weakened (such as in pneumonia, overwhelming infections of the whole body, severe accidents, or even when high doses of pain medications or sedatives are given), assistance is required to ensure that air continues to move in and out of the lungs. 

Types of Mechanical Ventilators:

  1. CPAP/BiPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure/Bi-Level Positive Airway Pressure) - These are the most basic ventilators and push air in by placing a mask over a person's nose/mouth.
  2. Invasive Ventilator - This pushes air into the lungs by using a tube placed in the person's windpipe through either their mouth, nose, or a tracheotomy tube. This is the most common type of ventilator found in most Intensive Care Units (ICU's).  
  3. Oscillator - This ventilator pushes air into the lungs very quickly and then pulls it out very quickly (sometimes up to 600 times in 1 minute). Although this sounds very uncomfortable, it is much more gentle on the lungs, and the person is always very well sedated so that they don't feel anything. This is typically only used in children who have severe lung problems.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.