What Is an Anesthesia Inhaler?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An anesthesia inhaler is a device used in the administration of anesthetic gases for medical procedures. It fits securely over the patient’s mouth and nose, delivering a carefully calculated mixture of gas and oxygen to maintain the desired level of anesthesia. As an alternative to an inhaler, an anesthesiologist may consider intubation, where a tube is inserted into the trachea to maintain the airway and deliver anesthetics directly into the lungs. These devices need to be carefully designed to fit snugly and minimize the risk of sparking, which could be very dangerous.

A patient being given anaesthesia through an inhaler.
A patient being given anaesthesia through an inhaler.

Historically, inhalation anesthesia was delivered through a sponge or cloth held in a grid positioned over the patient’s face. This early anesthesia inhaler was crude, and didn’t allow for very precise control of the anesthetic delivery. Care providers carefully dribbled ether or another compound onto the mask, allowing the resulting evaporated gases to fill the patient’s lungs with each breath. If there were problems with the airway, resuscitation could be difficult. The advent of better anesthetics also brought about better inhalation equipment.

This device includes a single-use face mask and tubing. One tube runs from the anesthesia machine to deliver an oxygen and gas mixture, and the other returns the patient’s respirations. These can be filtered and safely vented. Simply venting them into the room would induce anesthesia in the members of the operating team, which would be dangerous. Typically, an anesthesia inhaler is made from a flexible material that will conform to the face, and it has straps to hold it in place.

One concern with anesthesia equipment is sparks, because the gas and oxygen mixture is flammable. To protect the patient, the equipment is made from materials that do not produce static electricity. If a spark does reach the anesthetic gas, the patient’s airway could experience severe burns. The anesthesiologist monitors the patient and equipment for any signs of problems during the procedure, and continuously adjusts settings for patient safety.

People who have had surgery may remember the anesthesia inhaler, if it was used in their procedures. It is typically the last thing patients see after receiving sedation and being prepared for surgery. Anesthesiologists may ask patients to count back from 10 as they lower the anesthesia inhaler and start to induce unconsciousness. This memory can be particularly vivid for some surgical patients, many of whom never reach “one” because the gases act extremely quickly to render the patient unconscious so the surgeon can start work.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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