Tracheostomy (tray-key-OS-tuh-me) is a surgically created hole through the front of your neck and into your windpipe (trachea). The term for the surgical procedure to create this opening is tracheotomy.

A tracheostomy provides an air passage to help you breathe when the usual route for breathing is somehow obstructed or impaired. A tracheostomy is often needed when health problems require long-term use of a machine (ventilator) to help you breathe. In rare cases, an emergency tracheotomy is performed when your airway is suddenly blocked, such as after a traumatic injury to your face or neck.

When a tracheostomy is no longer needed, it's allowed to heal shut or is surgically closed. For some people, a tracheostomy is permanent.

Why it's done Risks How you prepare What you can expect Results

Situations that may call for a tracheostomy include:

  • Medical conditions that require the use of a breathing machine (ventilator) for an extended period, usually more than one or two weeks
  • Medical conditions that block or narrow your airway, such as vocal cord paralysis or throat cancer
  • Paralysis, neurological problems or other conditions that make it difficult to cough up secretions from your throat and require direct suctioning of the windpipe (trachea) to clear your airway
  • Preparation for major head or neck surgery to assist breathing during recovery
  • Severe trauma to the head or neck that obstructs breathing
  • Other emergency situations when breathing is obstructed and emergency personnel can't put a breathing tube through the mouth and into the trachea

Emergency care

Most tracheotomies are performed in a hospital setting. However, in the case of an emergency, it may be necessary to create a hole in a person's throat when outside of a hospital, such as at the scene of an accident.

Emergency tracheotomies are difficult to perform and have an increased risk of complications. A related and somewhat less risky procedure used in emergency care is a cricothyrotomy. This procedure creates a hole directly into the voice box (larynx) at a site immediately below the Adam's apple (thyroid cartilage).

Once a person is transferred to a hospital and stabilized, a cricothyrotomy is replaced by a tracheostomy if there's a need for long-term breathing assistance.

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