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What is a Tracheotomy?

By K T Solis
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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A tracheotomy is a type of surgery that opens the windpipe, also known as the trachea. It is usually performed in emergency situations when the patient cannot receive sufficient air in the lungs. It may also be performed when mucus or other types of secretions block the patient's windpipe. The opening made in the neck is called a tracheostomy while the surgery itself is called a tracheotomy.

Ancient Egyptian tablets reveal that tracheotomies were once performed in ancient Egypt, but 1649 was the first time the word tracheotomy appeared in written documents. It wasn't until 100 years later that doctors routinely began to perform this type of surgery on patients. In early medical history, this type of surgery was first used as a last resort treatment, and many people died as a result of this operation. Today, the operation can save lives when it is correctly performed on patients.

When a doctor performs this delicate procedure, an incision is made at the base of the patient's throat. The doctor then inserts a breathing tube into the opening so that air can reach the lungs. When a patient has to undergo major surgery of the throat or mouth, the surgeon will often perform a tracheotomy on the patient.

This is done since patients often experience serious swelling after a mouth or throat operation, thereby limiting the amount of air that reaches the lungs. Patients who are connected to a ventilator for an extended period of time or who are unable to breathe on their own can be cared for more easily if they undergo this type of operation. People who suffer from severe sleep apnea may also need this operation in order to breathe easier when they sleep.

Tracheotomy tubes can be removed if the patient can finally breathe on his or her own. Some patients may require the tube for just a few days. Other patients who use ventilators or who have severe sleep apnea may require the tracheotomy tube for an indefinite period of time.

The majority of tracheotomy tubes must be cleaned on a regular basis because they contain an inner tube that can become blocked by secretions. The outer tube will need to be changed every few months in order for the procedure to continue its effectiveness. A patient with a new tracheotomy tube will need to have a humidifier attached to the device. The humidifier remains connected for about one month since the trachea needs to become accustomed to being exposed to dry air.

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Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Mar 11, 2012

I get a little queasy whenever I see a doctor on a fictional television show performing a tracheotomy. Anytime someone gets a scalpel to the throat, I panic a little, even though I know it isn't real.

Imagine the horror of having to have this done in an emergency. True, you would be fighting for air and eager for breath by any means, but there is no time for sedation. You actually have to have your throat slit right then and there.

It would be so much better to have this done under anesthesia prior to surgery. That way, you'd be clueless about it until you woke up, and by then, it would be too late to freak out.

By Mykol — On Mar 11, 2012

My husband has severe sleep apnea. It got to the point where he had to have a tracheostomy and a tracheotomy tube.

While this isn't the most convenient thing to deal with, the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience. Both of us sleep so much better and I don't worry so much about him not breathing when he sleeps.

It is really important that he keeps the tube clean. Because it is such a moist environment, it is easy for bacteria to grow there, so keeping his tube sterilized is something we really have to keep an eye on.

I am glad they can perform a procedure like a tracheotomy to improve the quality of life in people who need help breathing.

By SarahSon — On Mar 10, 2012

I remember reading about the actress Catherine Zeta Jones having a tracheotomy when she was a girl. I think this was because of a virus that affected her breathing.

This left a small scar on her throat and would be cause for concern for many actresses. Most people in her business would probably want to have the scar removed somehow.

When she was interviewed about it, she said she has chosen not to have it removed. It serves as a reminder that this saved her life, and she chooses to leave the scar there.

I have a lot of respect for someone who has this attitude in a business that is so focused on perfect looks.

By andee — On Mar 10, 2012

@sunshined - Thank goodness your sister was OK. It makes you wonder what kind of tracheotomy equipment was used back in the ancient days of Egypt.

Since this is such a delicate procedure, I wonder how crude the equipment was and how well things were disinfected. When I have been to museums and looked at medical equipment that was used years ago, I just cringe.

It makes me glad I am alive today when we have clean, modern hospitals to take care of something like this.

It is easy to understand how many of these surgeries could be emergencies. If it is a case of life or death, you would be willing to try anything to save someone's life.

By sunshined — On Mar 09, 2012

My younger sister had to have an emergency tracheotomy when she was about 5 years old. This was a long time ago when there were family doctors who still made house calls.

She had a very bad case of the croup, and could not breathe. My parents called the doctor in town and he came in the middle of the night and performed this tracheotomy right there in our house.

Because she had so much congestion, this saved her life until they were able to get her to the hospital. This was a very scary time for all of us.

You can still see the scar on her throat where they inserted the breathing tube. Other than that, she hasn't had any complications since then.

We are just thankful that doctor knew exactly what to do and did not hesitate. We lived quite a few miles from the hospital, and there wasn't any time to waste.

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