A tracheostomy is an opening created at the front of the neck so a tube can be inserted into the windpipe (trachea) to help you breathe.

If necessary, the tube can be connected to an oxygen supply and a breathing machine called a ventilator.

The tube can also be used to suction out any fluid that has built up in the throat and windpipe.

Why they're used

A tracheostomy may be created for a number of reasons, including:

  • to deliver oxygen to the lungs when a person is unable to breathe normally after an injury or accident, or because their muscles are very weak
  • to allow a person to breathe if their throat is blocked – this can be caused by a swelling, a tumour, or something stuck in their throat
  • to reduce the risk of food or fluid going into your lungs (aspiration) if you find coughing difficult

In many cases, a tracheostomy will be planned in advance and carried out in hospital, although sometimes it may need to be done in an emergency outside of hospital, such as at the scene of an accident.

Read more about why tracheostomy procedures are carried out.

How the procedure is carried out

Planned tracheostomies are usually carried out under general anaesthetic. This means you will be asleep during the procedure and won't feel any pain.

A doctor or surgeon will make a hole in your throat using a needle or scalpel before inserting a tube into the opening.

If it's an emergency, the tracheostomy will be carried out as soon as possible using local anaesthetic if there is not enough time to use general anaesthetic. This means you will be awake during the procedure, but shouldn't feel severe pain.

Afterwards, you'll need to stay in hospital for at least a few days or weeks. In some cases, it may be possible to remove the tube and close the opening before leaving hospital.

However, the tube may need to stay in permanently if you have a long-term condition that affects your breathing.

Read about how a tracheostomy is performed.

Living with a tracheostomy

It's possible to enjoy a good lifestyle with a permanent tracheostomy tube, but it can take some time to adapt. Most people will initially have difficulty with talking, eating, exercise, and keeping the tracheostomy tube clean and free of blockages.

If you or your child needs a tracheostomy, a specially trained therapist can give you advice and answer any questions that you have. They will make sure you feel confident about looking after the tracheostomy before you leave hospital.

Read more about living with a tracheostomy.

Risks and complications

A tracheostomy is generally a safe and effective procedure. However, as with all medical procedures, there is a small risk of complications, including bleeding, infection, and breathing difficulties.

Read more about the possible complications of a tracheostomy.

Page last reviewed: 26/01/2015

Next review due: 26/01/2017