A patient who requires prolonged mechanical ventilation, is experiencing upper airway obstruction or needs assistance with chronic airway secretions may undergo a tracheostomy (Doyle & Scales 2015).
What is a Tracheostomy?
A tracheostomy is a surgical procedure that involves making an incision (stoma) into the trachea through the front of the neck. A tube is then inserted into the incision, creating an air passage that allows the patient to breathe directly through their trachea while avoiding their upper airway. This may be a temporary or permanent intervention (Healthdirect 2018; Mayo Clinic 2019).
You may encounter a patient with a tracheostomy in any area of healthcare. It is vital to ensure you care for a tracheostomy carefully and thoroughly, as an adverse event such as respiratory distress may develop if the tracheostomy is not managed properly.
Under these standards, NDIS providers must meet the following quality indicators:
Clients are enabled to participate in the assessment and development of a tracheostomy management plan. This plan identifies possible risks, incidents and emergencies, and what actions need to be taken to manage these situations, including the escalation of care, if necessary. The client’s health status is reviewed regularly (with the patient’s consent).
Staff members caring for tracheostomies are informed by appropriate policies, procedures and training plans.
Staff members caring for tracheostomies have received all necessary training that relates to each specific patient, either from a qualified health practitioner or another appropriately qualified individual.
Reasons for a Tracheostomy
The most common reasons for undergoing a tracheostomy are:
Managing an upper-airway obstruction (caused by a tumour, surgery, foreign body or infection);
Preventing damage to the larynx and upper airways after prolonged trans-laryngeal intubation;
Providing easy access to the lower airway for suctioning and the removal of secretion; and
Providing a stable airway for a patient who requires prolonged mechanical ventilation or oxygenation support.
Conditions that may lead to a tracheostomy being required include:
Neurological conditions (e.g. stroke);
Severe head or neck injuries;
Acquired or congenital subglottic stenosis;
Head or neck cancer;
Radiation therapy to the head or neck;
Severe lung disease;
When an endotracheal tube has been in situ for more than seven days, a tracheostomy may be considered.
Types of Tracheostomy Tubes
There are a variety of tracheostomy tubes available with some or all of the following features, depending on what the patient requires:
An inner cannula is a small tube inserted into the larger outer tube. It can be removed for cleaning while the outer tube stays in situ, helping to prevent mucus build-up.
A cuff is a balloon on the outside of the tube, which inflates and creates an airtight seal against the airway walls. It prevents air from escaping through the nose and mouth and can also prevent the aspiration of saliva. Mechanically ventilated patients with tracheostomies require cuffs.
An obturator/introducer attaches to the tracheostomy tube, creating a smooth, round tip. It is only used during the insertion of a tube to prevent damage to the trachea. It should be removed and discarded after tube insertion.
Fenestrations are small holes on the upper surface of the tube that allow air and secretions to pass into the upper airways. Fenestrations help to facilitate speech, however, care should be taken to ensure they do not become blocked by downward-passing secretions.
Sub-glottic suction ports facilitate suctioning above the cuff to prevent secretions from accumulating and going into the patient’s airway.
Although complications during placement are uncommon, they can be serious (Fernandez-Bussy et al. 2015).
Early complications are defined as those that occur within the first postoperative week (RCHM 2018). They include:
Respiratory or cardiac arrest;
Infection of the stoma;
Injury to the posterior tracheal wall; and
(Fernandez-Bussy et al. 2015; Doyle & McCutcheon 2015)
Late complications become more likely the longer the tube is kept in situ and are estimated to affect about 65% of patients. Patients who are critically ill or have comorbidities are more at risk (Fernandez-Bussy et al. 2015). These complications include:
Tracheal damage or erosion;
Tracheal stenosis; and
Formation of stomal or tracheal granulation tissue.
(Doyle & McCutcheon 2015; RCHM 2018)
Tracheostomy Emergency Management
Being able to identify the following signs of respiratory distress is crucial in promptly and appropriately addressing an emergency situation.
Signs of Respiratory Distress
Possible Causes of Respiratory Distress
Increased work of breathing
Decreased or gurgling breath sounds
High inspiratory airway pressure (or low tidal volume if the patient is mechanically ventilated)
No breath sounds
Unable to pass the suction catheter or inner cannula
Partial or complete airway obstruction due to blockage
Tracheostomy tube dislodgement
Persistent cuff leak
Faulty oxygen source or ventilation device
Tracheostomy in a false passage
Other causes (non-tracheostomy related)
(Adapted from NSW DoH 2015)
In the case of respiratory distress, you should take these immediate steps:
Provide oxygen via tracheostomy or face mask. Manually ventilate if required with a bag- valve mask (BVM) apparatus.
Check the oxygen source and connections, cuff inflation and humidifier.
If an inner cannula is in situ, check to see if there is a blockage and change it if required.
Call for assistance.
Conduct a head-to-toe assessment. Reassure the patient.
Check the positioning of the patient’s head/neck and the tracheostomy tube. If required, realign the tube to the midline.
If the tube is dislodged, maintain a patent airway (through head/neck positioning, jaw thrust and/or artificial oropharyngeal airway). Only an appropriately trained staff member may insert a new tube.
If the tube is still in situ but obstruction is suspected:
Pass a solution catheter and apply suction.
Change the inner cannula if present (ideally with a non-fenestrated one).
If the tube is obstructed, deflate the cuff if one is present.
Monitor the patency of the tube, the presence of any secretions and whether the patient is responding to suction.
If the patient’s respiratory distress reduces, assess if airflow is present and unobstructed and whether oxygen is adequate. A clinical assessment should be performed to identify the cause of the distress.
If there is no airflow through or around the tube:
Insert tracheal dilators around the tube into the stoma.
Remove the tube.
Insert a bougie or suction catheter. This must only be performed by an expert clinician with relevant experience.
Maintain an oropharyngeal airway to achieve oxygenation.
If a laryngectomy patient, focus on clearing the stoma and trachea.
(NSW DoH 2015)
Emergency Bedside Equipment
All tracheostomy patients should have the following equipment accessible by their bedside at all times in the event of an emergency:
Humidifier (set at 37 degrees);
Air Viva (with tracheostomy connecter and face mask);
Spare tracheostomy tubes (one the same size as the tube in situ and another that is one size smaller);
Water (for cleaning suction tubing);
Waste disposal bag;
Suction canister, tubing and suction device;
Tracheostomy tapes; and
(Austin Health 2016)
Tracheostomies can be both temporary and permanent and may appear in a variety of care and clinical settings. Being able to thoroughly monitor and care for tracheostomies is essential in preventing complications.
Note: This article is intended as a refresher and should not replace best-practice care. Always refer to your facility's policy on tracheostomy care and emergency management.
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