Doctor Decoded: What Is a Ventilator?

A ventilator is not the same as a simple oxygen mask.

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Mechanical ventilators have played an important role in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Early in the pandemic, a major concern was making sure that hospitals had enough ventilators to assist the sudden influx in patients. As the pandemic has progressed, many people mistakenly believe that these machines are the same as a simple oxygen mask—but this is far from true.

What Is a Mechanical Ventilator?

A mechanical ventilator is a bedside machine that assists with breathing. It can help treat respiratory failure, which is when you’re not getting enough oxygen to your blood. Your organs need oxygen to function. As a result, low oxygen levels deprive organs of oxygen and can cause health problems. Respiratory failure can be fatal, and it’s one of the life-threatening complications of COVID-19.

Here’s how ventilators work: An endotracheal tube goes through the mouth and into the windpipe. When the doctor inserts this tube into your throat, this process is called intubation. You will have this tube in your throat the entire time you are using the ventilator.

Then, the ventilator pumps concentrated oxygen through those tubes. Think of it like a fireplace bellow: They forcefully push the air in and out of the lungs.

Ventilators vs. Oxygen Masks

One of the myths about ventilators is that they are the same as a simple oxygen mask. Supplemental oxygen therapy simply provides concentrated oxygen through a face mask or nasal prongs. The patient can then breathe in the oxygen on their own. Ventilators, on the other hand, require a tube that goes into the throat. They manually force the lungs to inhale and exhale.

The Seriousness of Ventilators

To put it simply, being on a ventilator is a big deal. However, the confusion between ventilators and oxygen masks has made some people dismiss the seriousness of ventilators. Some people even shrug off the risk of COVID-19 altogether because they don't see why being intubated is "that bad."

As you might expect, mechanical ventilators can be uncomfortable. Because of the tube in your throat, you’ll have limited movement. You’ll likely have to stay in bed. Additionally, you may be unable to eat or talk while intubated. Instead, you may need to get nutrients from a feeding tube.

Although ventilators are life-saving devices, they come with health risks, such as pneumonia, blood clots, bedsores, lung damage, or vocal cord damage. When doctors choose to put someone on a ventilator, it's because the patient's health is in serious danger, and the risks are worth the benefits.

With all that in mind, you want to avoid needing a ventilator if you can help it. When it comes to COVID-19, you can reduce your risk of being intubated by following guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus. To put it bluntly, a cloth face covering is much more comfortable than a mechanical ventilator.