Intubation is a standard procedure that involves passing a tube into a person’s airway. Doctors often perform it before surgery or in emergencies to give medication or help a person breathe.

Most people recover from intubation with no long-term effects. However, like any procedure, it does have some risks.

In this article, learn about when doctors use intubation, how the procedure works, and what side effects are possible.

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Intubation is a medical procedure that involves inserting a flexible plastic tube down a person’s throat. This is a common procedure carried out in operating rooms and emergency rooms around the world.

The primary purposes of intubation include:

  • opening up the airway to give oxygen, anesthetic, or medicine
  • removing blockages
  • helping a person breathe if they have collapsed lungs, heart failure, or trauma
  • allowing doctors to look at the airways
  • helping to prevent a person from breathing in liquids

There are several different types of intubation. Doctors classify them based on the location of the tube and what it is trying to accomplish.

Some common types of intubation include:

  • Nasogastric intubation: This involves passing the tube through the nose and into the stomach to remove air or to feed or provide medications to the person.
  • Endotracheal intubation: Where a doctor passes the tube through the nose or mouth into the trachea to help a person breathe while under anesthetic or due to a distressed airway.
  • Fiber-optic intubation: In which a doctor inserts the tube into the throat to examine the throat or assist endotracheal intubation when a person cannot extend or flex their head.

The intubation procedure will vary depending on its purpose and whether it occurs in an operating room or an emergency situation.

In the operating room or another controlled setting, a doctor will typically sedate the person using an anesthetic. The doctor will then insert an instrument called a laryngoscope into the person’s mouth to aid insertion of the flexible tubing.

The doctor uses the laryngoscope to locate sensitive tissues, such as the vocal cords, and avoid damaging them. If the doctor is having trouble seeing, they may insert a tiny camera to help guide them.

In the operating room, doctors usually use intubation to help a person breathe while they are under anesthetic.

Once they have inserted the tube, a doctor will listen to the person’s breathing to make sure the tube is in the correct spot. A doctor typically attaches the tube to a ventilator.

When the person no longer has difficulty breathing, the doctor will remove the tube from the person’s throat.

In emergencies, a healthcare provider may need to perform intubation to save a person’s life. It can be a very useful procedure to assist with airway management and has been a beneficial tool during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emergency intubation can be a risky procedure that often requires a clear plan, imaging scans to guide placing the tube, and team member role allocation to ensure safe and effective intubation and help avoid potential adverse events.

Potential side effects of intubation include:

  • damage to the vocal cords
  • bleeding
  • infection
  • tearing or puncturing of tissue in the chest cavity that can lead to lung collapse
  • injury to throat or trachea
  • damage to dental work or injury to teeth
  • fluid buildup
  • aspiration

Adverse events are more likely to occur if a doctor performs intubation in an emergency. However, it is vital to remember that intubation can be a life-saving procedure in these cases.

Mild side effects that may occur after the procedure include:

More severe side effects that can occur may include pneumonia and difficulty breathing.

In rare cases, a person may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially if they were not fully sedated or psychologically prepared for the procedure.

Finally, anesthesia also has some risks. Although most people will not experience any side effects from anesthesia, some people, such as older adults or people with obesity, are at higher risk of developing complications.

Many people feel nauseated and may vomit after waking up from anesthesia. They may also experience temporary confusion or memory loss.

A doctor will talk to a person about the full list of risks before they undergo surgery.

Many people will experience a sore throat and difficulty swallowing immediately after intubation, but recovery is usually quick, taking several hours to several days depending on the time spent intubated.

However, if a person experiences any of the following symptoms following their procedure, they should let their doctor know immediately as these could be signs of more serious issues:

  • a severe sore throat
  • pain in the chest
  • difficulty speaking or swallowing
  • shortness of breath
  • pain in the neck
  • facial swelling

Intubation refers to placing a tube in the throat to help move air in and out of the lungs. Mechanical ventilation is similar as it involves intubation, but instead uses a breathing machine, known as a ventilator, to assist with breathing. Some people may also refer to ventilators as life-support machines.

Healthcare providers will typically place a tube into the mouth or nose of a person, then connect the tube to the ventilator. The machine creates positive pressure that forces air into the lungs, which helps hold the lungs open and assists with maintaining breathing.

Learn more about ventilators here.

A tracheostomy is a surgical procedure that involves a surgeon making a hole at the front of the neck and inserting a breathing tube directly into the trachea, or windpipe.

People may also call this procedure a tracheotomy, which refers to the incision, while doctors call the opening a tracheostomy. Due to the incision’s placement, a person is able to breathe through the tube rather than the nose and mouth.

This differs from intubation, as intubation does not typically involve surgery and the healthcare team places a tube into the trachea via the mouth or nose.

Learn more about a tracheostomy here.

Intubation is a common procedure that can be the difference between life and death in an emergency.

In most cases, a person will fully recover from intubation within a few hours to days and will have no long-term side effects.

People can ask the doctor or surgeon about all of the potential side effects and risks of intubation before surgery. If a person experiences any severe or unusual side effects, they should speak with a doctor right away.