A tracheostomy can deliver oxygen to the lungs if you cannot breathe normally. This is known as respiratory failure.
Conditions that can lead to respiratory failure and the need for a tracheostomy include:
- being unconscious or in a coma as a result of a severe head injury or stroke
- an inability to move 1 or more muscles (paralysis) after a serious spinal cord injury
- a condition that damages the lungs, such as pneumonia or cystic fibrosis
- a condition that damages the nervous system, such as motor neurone disease or Guillain-Barré syndrome
Sometimes, 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.
A tracheostomy can also be used to bypass an airway that's 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.
A tracheostomy may be carried out to remove fluid that's built up in the airways.
This may be needed if: