Intubation is defined as the insertion of a tube into an organ or orifice of the body in an effort to access an area for a medical purpose such as draining fluid or providing a passage for air. Respiratory intubation is intubation for the sole purpose of maintaining proper breathing. Intubation is performed in both routine procedures, such as surgery requiring general anesthesia, as well as emergency situations where the airways are blocked.
There are different types of respiratory intubation, but all involve accessing the trachea, or windpipe, to maintain the necessary flow of air to the lungs. Endotracheal intubation is the medical term for creating a passage through the nose or mouth to the trachea via the insertion of a tube. This procedure is used with and without ventilation assistance. Ventilation, either manual or mechanical, is necessary in situations when the respiratory system is incapable of functioning adequately on its own.
In situations where the respiratory situation is functioning, respiratory intubation may be used to maintain the airway when there is a risk of blockage or aspiration. The procedure may also be necessary to administer general anesthesia for surgery. Temporary respiratory intubation is typically harmless and generally results in minor irritation of the throat. In some cases, damage to the larynx may occur but it is rarely a long-term problem.
Respiratory intubation can take place while a patient is conscious, but in cases where this cannot be achieved, a procedure called rapid sequence intubation (RSI) is performed. This procedure involves the administration of a sedative and paralytic prior to tube insertion. The patient is essentially rendered medically unconscious to avoid distress or complications. Paramedics and emergency room workers may use RSI to intubate a patient with a strong gag reflex, clenched teeth or other condition that makes conscious intubation difficult or impossible.
Patients who undergo longer-term respiratory intubation, such as those with a respiratory condition that threatens life, are often given medications that keep the patient sedated. They may also be given medication an analgesic to eliminate any pain or irritation caused by the tube. The type of intubation used, whether through the nose or mouth, depends largely on the reason for intubation and the condition of the patient at the time of the procedure.