What is a Ventilator and its Uses?

August 26, 2022 - Parul Saini, Webmedy Team

Updated Version - July 17, 2023

Ventilators pump air into the lungs to mimic or support breathing. In some cases, it is referred to as a vent or breathing machine. People who cannot breathe on their own require ventilators. It could be that they are under general anesthesia or suffering from an illness that affects their breathing.


Ventilators are available in a variety of types, each of which provides varying levels of support. The type a doctor chooses will depend on the patient's condition. Whether they are used in hospitals or ambulances, ventilators play an important role in saving lives. It is also possible to use them at home if someone needs long-term ventilation.

The purpose of this article is to provide insight into when and how ventilators are used, as well as what the risks are associated with them.

Who needs a Ventilator?

When a person is suffering from respiratory failure, ventilation is required. In this situation, a person cannot get enough oxygen and can't expel carbon dioxide properly. This can be a life-threatening condition. Many injuries and conditions can cause respiratory failure, including:

  • Head injury
  • Stroke
  • Lung disease
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Polio
  • Sudden cardiac arrest
  • Neonatal respiratory distress syndrome
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
  • Pneumonia
  • Sepsis

Some people with COVID-19 have severe difficulty breathing. It occurs only in people with critical illnesses, which account for around 5% of COVID-19 cases.

In addition, doctors also use ventilators for people who undergo surgery and will not be able to breathe on their own due to anesthesia.

Types of Ventilators

There are several types of ventilators based on the ways a person can receive ventilator support. These include:

  • Face mask ventilators
  • Mechanical ventilators
  • Manual resuscitator bags
  • Tracheostomy ventilators

Face mask ventilators are noninvasive. Mechanical and tracheostomy ventilators are invasive, which work via tubes that a doctor inserts through a hole in the neck that leads to the trachea, or windpipe. For some, a face mask ventilator may be sufficient to stabilize their condition. People who physically struggle to breathe independently may require mechanical ventilation.

Below, we have explained each type of ventilator and how they work.

  • Face mask Ventilator

    A face mask ventilator is a non-invasive way to support someone's ability to breathe and get enough oxygen in their blood. A person uses one by wearing a mask that covers their mouth and nose and allows air to flow into their airways and lungs.

    People with COVID-19 may use a face mask ventilator if they are having difficulty breathing or do not have sufficient oxygen levels. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) devices also operate via a face mask. People often use these for chronic conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but some doctors may also use them for people with COVID-19.

  • Mechanical Ventilator

    Mechanical ventilators are machines that take over the breathing process entirely. Doctors use these when a person cannot breathe on their own.

    Mechanical ventilators work via a tube in a person's throat, pumping air into the lungs and transporting carbon dioxide away. A ventilator unit regulates the pressure, humidity, volume, and temperature of the air, depending on the controls that a doctor or respiratory therapist places. This allows healthcare professionals to control a person's breathing and oxygen levels.

    People with COVID-19 may need a mechanical ventilator if they are critically ill.

  • Manual Resuscitator Bags

    Manual resuscitator bags are pieces of equipment that allow people to control the airflow of their ventilator with their hands. These devices consist of an empty bag, or "bladder," that a person squeezes to pump air into the lungs.

    A person can attach one of these devices to a face mask ventilator, or, if they are intubated, a doctor can attach one to the tube in their throat. This can be useful as a temporary solution if a person on a mechanical ventilator needs to stop using it. For example, if there is a power outage, a person can use a manual resuscitator bag while waiting for the power to come back on.

  • Tracheostomy Ventilator

    People who have undergone a tracheostomy will require a ventilator. Tracheostomy is a procedure where a doctor creates an opening in the windpipe and inserts a tube, which allows air to flow in and out. This enables a person to breathe without using their nose or mouth.

    People who have undergone tracheostomies can also receive ventilator support through this opening. Instead of inserting a ventilator through the mouth, doctors insert it directly into the windpipe. People may require tracheostomies if they need mechanical ventilation for an extended period and need more time for rehabilitation.

    Others who suffer from illnesses like chronic lung disease or a neuromuscular problem that affects the breathing muscles may need tracheostomies for an extended period. Some people can take care of their tracheostomies at home.

What are the risks of using a Ventilator?

If you have a ventilator, your life may be saved. However, like other treatments, it can cause potential side effects. Here we have listed some most common risks related to ventilators:

  • Infections, such as sinus infections.
  • Airway blockage.
  • Vocal cord injury by intubation that lasts a long time.
  • When the lungs do not fully inflate, atelectasis develops, limiting the amount of oxygen that reaches the bloodstream.
  • Aspiration problem.
  • Lung injury can be caused by excessive oxygen or air pressure.
  • Pulmonary edema develops when fluid accumulates inside the lungs' air sacs.
  • There is a pneumothorax, which occurs when air leaks from the lungs into the space just outside of them, causing pain, shortness of breath, and in some cases, a complete collapse of the lungs.
  • Long-term resting in one position can cause bedsores or blood clots.

Doctors and nurses can take steps to reduce the likelihood of these complications. These steps include:

  • Closely monitoring people on ventilators for signs of complications.
  • Adjusting the air pressure and oxygen levels to match a patient's normal levels.
  • Wearing personal protective equipment to protect against viruses and prevent their spread to others.
  • Treating bacterial infections with antibiotics.


Ventilators are breathing apparatuses that support healthy lung function. They can assist you with your breathing when you're receiving treatment for or recovering from a disease or health condition. Ventilators can be a lifesaver and a critical component of medical support for patients of all ages, including infants and children.

Helpful Information

What is a ventilator and what is its primary function?

A ventilator is a machine that supports breathing. Its primary function is to get oxygen into the lungs and remove carbon dioxide from the body, which is critical in treating patients who aren't able to breathe adequately on their own.

How does a ventilator work?

A ventilator moves breathable air into and out of the lungs. It can do this in a couple of ways: either by pumping air (and often extra oxygen) into the lungs when the patient inhales, or by using positive pressure to push air into the lungs.

When is a ventilator used in healthcare?

A ventilator is typically used in healthcare when a patient is unable to breathe well enough on their own. This can occur due to a variety of circumstances, such as severe pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or after certain types of surgery.

What is the role of a ventilator in treating COVID-19 patients?

For patients with severe cases of COVID-19, a ventilator is used to help the patient's body get enough oxygen, as the disease can cause difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and in severe cases, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Is a ventilator the same as life support?

While a ventilator is a form of life support, not all life support involves a ventilator. Life support refers to any combination of machines and medication that keeps a person alive when their organs would otherwise stop working.

Can a person talk while on a ventilator?

It's generally difficult for a person to talk while on a ventilator because the endotracheal or tracheostomy tube used for ventilation doesn't allow air to flow over the vocal cords.

What is the process of weaning off a ventilator?

Weaning off a ventilator is a gradual process where healthcare professionals begin reducing the support provided by the ventilator and let the patient start to breathe more on their own. This process needs to be carefully managed to ensure the patient's safety and comfort.

What is a non-invasive ventilator?

A non-invasive ventilator helps support a patient's breathing without the need for intubation. Instead, a tightly fitting mask is placed over the nose and/or mouth, and the ventilator provides pressurized air into the lungs.

What are the potential risks or complications of using a ventilator?

Some potential risks or complications of using a ventilator can include pneumonia, lung damage, blood clots, and sinus problems. There's also the risk of psychological effects, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly if the patient is conscious.

What is a portable ventilator and what are its uses?

A portable ventilator is a compact and mobile device that supports patients who need assistance with breathing but are not in a hospital setting. They can be used at home or while traveling, and can support those with chronic respiratory conditions, or people recovering from specific surgeries or illnesses.

What is a mechanical ventilator?

A mechanical ventilator is a machine that helps a person breathe by getting oxygen into the lungs and removing carbon dioxide from the body. It's called mechanical because it uses pressure or vacuum mechanical technology to aid in respiration.

How long can a person stay on a ventilator?

The length of time a person stays on a ventilator depends on their condition and the reason they needed ventilation in the first place. Some people may only need a ventilator for a few hours or days, while others with more severe conditions might need to stay on it for weeks or even months.

What is the purpose of a ventilator in surgery?

During certain surgeries, a ventilator is used to take over a patient's breathing while they are under general anesthesia. This ensures the body gets the necessary oxygen and that carbon dioxide is adequately removed.

Can a ventilator help with sleep apnea?

A specific type of non-invasive ventilator, known as a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, can help with sleep apnea. It keeps the airway open by providing a steady stream of air through a mask.

What's the difference between a respirator and a ventilator?

A respirator is a mask-like device worn to protect the wearer from inhaling harmful dusts, fumes, vapors, or gases, whereas a ventilator is a machine that helps a patient breathe or breathes for them.

How is a patient placed on a ventilator?

In a process called intubation, a tube is inserted into the patient's windpipe (trachea) through the mouth or nose. This tube is then connected to the ventilator, which delivers oxygen to the lungs.

What's the role of a respiratory therapist with regards to ventilators?

A respiratory therapist is a healthcare professional who specializes in providing healthcare for your lungs. They have a key role in managing and monitoring patients who are on ventilators, including setting up the ventilator, monitoring patient's response, and adjusting settings as needed.

What is an emergency ventilator?

An emergency ventilator is a device that is used when a patient needs immediate assistance with their breathing, such as during a severe allergic reaction, an asthma attack, or in cases of trauma. These are typically found in emergency rooms and ambulances.

How does a ventilator assist with lung function?

A ventilator aids lung function by ensuring the lungs receive enough oxygen and that carbon dioxide is removed efficiently. It helps in maintaining the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is crucial for the body's cells to function properly.

What's the difference between invasive and non-invasive ventilation?

Invasive ventilation involves inserting a tube directly into the windpipe via the mouth or through a surgically created hole in the neck, while non-invasive ventilation involves using a face or nasal mask. Invasive ventilation is typically used for more severe cases or when long-term ventilation is needed.


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