A tracheostomy is sometimes needed if you're unable to breathe normally because of an underlying health condition or a blocked airway.

Breathing problems

A tracheostomy can deliver oxygen to the lungs if you can't 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) is inserted into the mouth and down the throat.

But this can be uncomfortable, so a tracheostomy may be carried out if you need help breathing for more than a few days.

Blockages

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

  • accidentally swallowing something that gets stuck in the windpipe (trachea)
  • an injury, infection, burn or 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

It may be necessary to carry out a tracheostomy to remove fluid that's built up in the airways.

This may be needed if you:

  • are unable to cough properly because of chronic pain, muscle weakness or paralysis
  • have a serious lung infection, such as pneumonia, that has caused your lungs to become clogged with fluid
  • your airways or lungs have filled with blood as a result of an injury

Page last reviewed: 11/01/2017

Next review due: 11/01/2020