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What is an ICU Ventilator?

By Lynn Cole
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An intensive care unit (ICU) ventilator is a machine used to assist or replace the spontaneous breathing of an ICU patient. While a physician, nurse, or other healthcare professional might use a hand-compressed "bag" ventilator in an intensive care setting, it would be more common to use an automatically controlled ICU ventilator. This type of ICU ventilator operates according to the ventilation needs of the patient and the oxygen and gas delivery values set on the machine by the caregiver.

In most cases, an ICU ventilator will either be a negative-pressure ventilator, with which air or an air-gas mixture is more passively sucked into the lungs, or a positive-pressure ventilator, with which the air or air-gas mixture is pushed into the patient's trachea and lungs. While most ventilators are used for relatively short periods, such as during a surgical operation, a ventilator in an ICU might be used for a much longer period while a patient is in a more critical or long-term recovery or treatment state. In some cases, an ICU ventilator might be used in a long-term care facility or in a patient’s home if the patient requires long-term assistance with breathing.

While assistance with breathing via an ICU ventilator is often a life-saving measure, complications can arise. The most common complications are pneumothorax, an airway injury, pneumonia and other damage to the lungs. The prolonged time that an ICU ventilator might be in use by a patient means the ventilator is typically secured to the patient by means of an endotracheal tube that is inserted into the trachea through the mouth or nose. In some cases, healthcare professionals employ a tracheostomy, in which a surgical procedure creates an opening directly into the patient’s trachea for insertion of the tube connected to the ventilator. A less invasive use of a ventilator might involve simply wearing a mask through which air or an air-gas mixture is delivered to the patient from the ventilator.

The use of an ICU ventilator is most often indicated when a patient’s natural, spontaneous breathing is deemed inadequate to sustain life. It is also used when a person’s breathing is not providing adequate gas exchange during his or her natural breathing cycle. ICU ventilators are essential to modern medicine, but they do not cure underlying medical conditions; however, many people could not survive without them, and physicians and healthcare providers rely on them daily to provide life-saving care.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By BoniJ — On Jun 27, 2011

A friend of mine recently had a serious heart attack. He was not conscious, and he was in the

ICU for four days before he died. He was on an ICU ventilator, and never responded at all in those four days.

The family felt fortunate that he was kept alive so they could spend time with him and say good-bye, even though he didn't respond.

Sometimes, I think that all the new medical procedures to prolong life are going too far, but when I see a situation like this, I think it's good.

By Clairdelune — On Jun 25, 2011

I gather from this article that in serious cases, using an ICU ventilator is the only thing that is keeping these people alive. It must be hard on the patients and their families knowing that their life-line is a medical ventilator.

What a great medical achievement to now have automatically controlled ICU ventilators. Patients can now live at home and get around a little.

I hope I never have to use one, but if I do, I feel that I could still have a fairly good quality of life.

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