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A flutter valve is a device that allows air to pass out of a chest tube and prevents it from building up around the lungs. The flutter device, also called a Heimlich valve, can also be incorporated into a cylinder that a patient breathes out through. It is often incorporated into therapy as a way to bring up mucus. Flutter valves are typically used to remove air from the chest cavity, a condition called pneumothorax. The valve is generally a rubber component encased in plastic, which opens one way to let air out; the flow cannot be reversed, so gas or fluid can only go in one direction down a chest tube.
Drainage tubes are often inserted into the chest cavity if there is a buildup of air or fluid. This can occur because of disease or a reaction to medical procedures. If not already designed to fit in one direction, the valve needs to be inserted correctly to relieve the pressure in the chest. These devices are typically used in respiratory medicine as part of emergency treatment, or can be in place for long durations. Some hospital patients are sent home with tubes, complete with a flutter valve, in place for treatment outside the facility.
When used over long periods of time, a Heimlich valve should frequently be taken apart and cleaned. Infections can occur if the valve gets dirty, and the site usually has to be checked for leakage of air or fluid around the tube. Such treatments and therapy are sometimes used to treat obstructive conditions of the lungs and have been used in cystic fibrosis patients.
A flutter valve can clog, and this should generally be looked for in anyone with the device. If a chest tube is blocked, a person can experience pneumothorax, or develop pockets of air or liquid under the skin. Fluid drainage is often a problem with a flutter device, and some patients and physicians seek other methods of drainage if they are available.
Some flutter valves are built into portable devices that are designed to be exhaled through. The valve in the cylinder is usually cone-shaped, and there is a ball within the valve as well. Vibration of respiratory system airways results during exhalation, which can loosen mucus. The device can also help pressurize the bronchial tubes so air does not get trapped, as well as force air to speed up on the way out of the lungs, so mucus can be pushed upward.