Why a tracheostomy may be needed 

A tracheostomy is sometimes required when a person is unable to breathe normally because of an underlying health condition or a blocked airway.

Breathing problems

A tracheostomy can deliver oxygen to the lungs when a person is unable to breathe normally. This is known as respiratory failure.

Conditions that can lead to respiratory failure and the need for a tracheostomy include:

In some cases, a tube attached to an artificial breathing machine (ventilator) will be inserted into the mouth and down the throat initially. However, as this can be uncomfortable, a tracheostomy may be created if breathing support is needed for more than a few days.


A tracheostomy can also be used to bypass an airway that has become blocked as a result of:

  • accidentally swallowing something that gets stuck in the windpipe (trachea), such as a piece of bone
  • an injury, infection, burn, or a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) that causes the throat to become swollen and narrowed
  • swelling after head or neck surgery
  • a cancerous tumour – this can sometimes happen with mouth cancer, laryngeal cancer, or thyroid gland cancer

In addition, some children born with birth defects that cause their airways to be abnormally narrow may need a tracheostomy to help them breathe.

Removing fluid

In some circumstances, it may be necessary to create a tracheostomy to remove fluid that has built up in the airways. This may be needed when a person:

  • is unable to cough properly because of chronic pain, muscle weakness, or paralysis
  • has a serious lung infection, such as pneumonia, that has caused their lungs to become clogged with fluid
  • has an injury that has resulted in their airways or lungs becoming filled with blood

Page last reviewed: 26/01/2015

Next review due: 26/01/2017