Hospital  >  Departments  >  Critical Care Medicine  >  Navigating the ICU  >  What are all those tubes and machines?  >  What is a breathing machine (mechanical ventilator) and what does it do?

What is a breathing machine (mechanical ventilator) and what does it do?

Breathing machineSome patients need help to breathe. In this situation a “breathing machine” – also known as a mechanical ventilator – is used to assist the function of the lungs.

  • The ventilator blows air into the lungs, helping to maintain proper levels of oxygen in the blood.
  • To use a mechanical ventilator, the medical team needs some form of access to the patient’s lungs.Intubated patient
  • A tube can be inserted into the mouth or nose to reach the lungs. This is called intubation.
  • Or, a tube can be inserted into the windpipe, medically known as the trachea. The procedure to create an opening in the windpipe is called a tracheostomy.

Mechanical ventilators are complex machines that can be adjusted to meet the needs of each patient.

  • Contemporary ventilation equipmentThe most common adjustments will affect how much effort the patient needs to make, and how much oxygen is delivered.
  • Adjustments are made fairly frequently throughout the day to improve the patient’s comfort level and ensure proper oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Respiratory therapists and physicians use protocols, or guidelines, to adjust the controls, and they discuss changes and improvements with the team on a daily basis.

Does it hurt to be intubated?

Tracheal intubationEach person has a different perception and response to pain. One out of every 3 patients will not even remember having the breathing tube in place afterwards.

  • The sicker a person is, the less likely he or she will remember the experience.
  • For those that can remember, the tube is one of the major sources of discomfort.
  • However, the tube is not the only cause of discomfort. Instead, discomfort may result from the use of suctioning to clear the lungs of fluid build-up. Two-thirds of alert patients perceive suctioning as causing moderate to severe pain.

Learn more about how nurses assess and treat pain for patients in the ICU.

Donate life-saving equipment to Sunnybrook

Ventilators can be life-saving medical equipment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunnybrook is accepting donations of ventilators and other vital equipment, like masks and gowns. Learn more at sunnybrook.ca/supplies

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Location and contact

Critical Care Medicine

Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre
2075 Bayview Avenue, 
D-wing, 1st floor
room D1 08
Toronto, ON M4N 3M5

Phone: 416-480-4522
Fax: 416-480-4999

For information about patients admitted to Sunnybrook's Intensive Care Units, please contact the unit through the hospital switchboard at 416-480-6100