What is tracheostomy?

Jump To

Tracheostomy for obstructive sleep apnea: Overview

Tracheostomy is surgery that is sometimes used to treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It's used if you have severe sleep apnea, other treatments have failed, and other forms of surgery won't work for you.

In this surgery, the surgeon creates a permanent opening in the neck to the windpipe (trachea). The surgeon then puts a tube into the opening to let air in.

  • A valve keeps the opening of the tube closed during the day, which allows you to speak and breathe normally.
  • At night, you open the valve so that air can go around the blockage in your throat and into your lungs while you sleep.

Tracheostomy almost always cures sleep apnea that is caused by blockage of the upper airway.

How can you care for yourself after a tracheostomy?


  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover.
  • Try to walk each day. Start out by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation.
  • Avoid strenuous activities, such as biking, jogging, weight lifting, and aerobic exercise, for 6 weeks.
  • You may take a bath in shallow water. Do not splash water into your trach.
  • You may take a shower. Aim the showerhead at your lower body or back. Cover the tube so that no water gets in but you can still breathe.
  • Do not swim.
  • The doctor will help you decide how much time you will need to request off work. Once you are ready to return to work, the doctor will complete any paperwork to ensure your return. It can also depend on the type of work you do, your employer, your ability to speak, how you feel, and other health problems you may have.


  • Eating and speaking may require the use of a special valve.
  • If food or liquid gets into your tracheostomy tube, suction it out right away. Sit up while you eat.
  • If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (unless your doctor tells you not to).
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fiber supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.


  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. You will also be given instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you stopped taking aspirin or some other blood thinner, your doctor will tell you when to start taking it again.
  • Be safe with medicines. Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, take an over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines contain acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor tells you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.

Incision, stoma, and tube care

Your doctor or nurse will give you instructions on how to take care of your trach. This will include knowing the size of your trach, how to suction your trach, how to clean the opening in your neck (stoma), and how to clean and replace your trach's inner tube (inner cannula). Be sure to follow all of your doctor's instructions closely. And remember to have your emergency supplies such as your obturator ready and available wherever you are.

  • Suctioning Suctioning is needed if you can't clear mucus and secretions from your trach tube by coughing. Always have suction supplies ready, including a fully charged suction machine. Suction the trach as often as your doctor recommends or as needed. You will need suction catheters, a suction machine, and a mirror. These should be delivered to your home before you arrive there. Here are the steps to take:
    • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 30 seconds.
    • Connect to oxygen for 30 to 60 seconds before suctioning.
    • Connect a catheter to the suction machine tubing. Insert the catheter into the trach. Push the tube in gently to the premeasured length.
    • Slowly pull the catheter out of the trach, rolling it back and forth between your fingers, with your thumb over the control valve (this turns the suction on). Do not keep the suction on for more than 10 seconds at a time.
    • Wait about 30 seconds, and repeat inserting and pulling out the tube until all the mucus has been removed.
    • Catheters can be used again if you clean them properly. Ask your doctor how to do this. Throw away used catheters if your doctor tells you to. Connect to oxygen after suctioning. Wash your hands again.
  • Stoma care Clean and dry the stoma 2 times a day, and as needed. Apply ointment to keep the skin healthy. Do not let crust form on the skin at the stoma. You will need saline fluid or sterile water, 8 or 10 cotton-tipped swabs, gauze pads, a small cup, a dry cloth, a mirror, presplit gauze, and ointment for the skin. Follow these steps:
    • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 30 seconds.
    • Fill the cup with the saline fluid or sterile water. Dampen a gauze pad or cotton-tipped swab and squeeze out any excess liquid from the gauze.
    • Clean and remove dried mucus around the stoma with the damp gauze pad or cotton-tipped swabs. To prevent spreading an infection, wipe the gauze or swab only once and then throw it away. Repeat with new, sterile material until the skin is clean. Be sure to look for any changes to the area, such as changes in color or swelling.
    • Dry your skin with a clean gauze pad. If your doctor tells you to use skin ointment for your stoma, apply it with the remaining cotton-tipped swabs. If needed, use a new, presplit gauze to protect the skin.
    • Wash your hands again.
  • Cleaning the inner cannula If you are not using the disposable type of cannula, clean and replace the inner cannula 2 times each day and as needed. You will need 2 small bowls, a small cannula pipe brush, sterile water or saline fluid, and a mirror. To clean the inner cannula:
    • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 30 seconds.
    • Pour a small amount of sterile water or saline fluid into both bowls.
    • Unlock the inner cannula from the trach and remove it by gently turning it counterclockwise then pulling it out and down. Put the reusable inner cannula into the first bowl. (If the inner cannula is disposable, throw it away and replace it with a new inner cannula.) Clean the inside and outside of the reusable inner cannula with the brush.
    • Rinse the cannula in the second bowl. Shake the cannula out, and slide it gently back into the outer cannula. Make sure the cannula is locked in place and you cannot pull it out.
    • Wash your hands again.

Other instructions

  • Wear clothes that are loose around your neck.
  • If you are outside, wear a loose covering over your trach, such as a scarf or other cloth, but avoid clothing with loose fibers. Covering your trach prevents dust, dirt, and bacteria from getting into it. You can also use special trach "bibs" to cover your trach and to protect your clothing from mucus when you cough. You can buy trach bibs at a medical supply store.
  • Try not to breathe in anything that might irritate your trach. This includes small bits of food, smoke, powders, aerosol sprays, and dust.
  • Keep the air in your home moist with a room vaporizer or humidifier. Follow the directions for cleaning the machine.
  • Carry an extra cannula and obturator with you at all times, in case your tube becomes blocked.

How long does a tracheostomy take?

The surgery lasts about 30 minutes.

How do you prepare for a tracheostomy?

Surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for surgery.

Preparing for surgery

  • Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.
  • Understand exactly what surgery is planned, along with the risks, benefits, and other options.
  • If you take a medicine that prevents blood clots, your doctor may tell you to stop taking it before your surgery. Or your doctor may tell you to keep taking it. (These medicines include aspirin and other blood thinners.) Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Tell your doctor ALL the medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies you take. Some may increase the risk of problems during your surgery. Your doctor will tell you if you should stop taking any of them before the surgery and how soon to do it.
  • Make sure your doctor and the hospital have a copy of your advance directive. If you don’t have one, you may want to prepare one. It lets others know your health care wishes. It’s a good thing to have before any type of surgery or procedure.

What are the risks of a tracheostomy?

Risks that may occur with a tracheostomy include:

  • Scar tissue forming at the opening. This can affect how your neck looks.
  • Having a hard time speaking.
  • Bleeding and infection at the site.
  • Increased risk of lung infections.
  • Emotional problems, such as depression or a change in self-image.

What is a tracheostomy?

A tracheostomy (say "trayk-ee-AW-stuh-mee") is surgery to put a breathing tube directly into your windpipe (trachea). This tube helps you breathe when something is making it difficult or impossible to breathe through your nose or mouth. For example, it may be done if you have throat cancer, a lung or nerve problem, trouble handling secretions, or something blocking your airway, or if you injured your mouth or neck. The terms tracheostomy, tracheotomy, and "trach" (say "trayk") are all used to talk about the surgery itself and the opening created by the surgery. The opening is also called a stoma.

You may need a trach for a short time. Or you may need a trach permanently.

Caring for Your Child's Tracheostomy

What can you expect as you recover from a tracheostomy?

After surgery, you will stay in the hospital until it's safe to go home. In some cases, the trach tube can be removed before you go home. But in many cases, you will need to go home with the trach tube still in place.

Your neck may be sore and you may have trouble swallowing for a few days after surgery. It will also feel different to breathe and speak. Most people get used to breathing through the tube in a few days. At first, it will be hard to make sounds or to speak. Your doctor or a speech therapist can help you learn to talk with your trach tube, either by closing the tube with your finger or by adding a special one-way valve to the trach tube. You may also be able to use speaking devices to help you talk. When you speak, your voice may sound deeper and scratchier than normal.

You can expect to feel better each day. But it may take at least 2 weeks to adjust to living with your trach. After a few weeks, you may be able to return to work or your normal routine. This will depend on the type of work you do, your employer, your ability to speak, how you feel, and other health problems you may have. Some people can't return to their previous job or routine.

Your trach tube may be sewn or tied to your skin. If you have stitches, the doctor will remove them about 1 week after your surgery. The doctor may also take out your original tube and put in a new tube 5 to 10 days after surgery.

If you go home with your trach tube, it is very important to take good care of it. Caring for your trach helps prevent infections and helps keep you breathing easily. Your doctor will teach you how to take care of your trach at home.

After tracheostomy: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have severe trouble breathing, and coughing and suctioning do not help.
  • Your trach falls out and you cannot get it back in, and you are not able to breathe.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your trach falls out and you cannot get it back in, but you can still breathe.
  • You have trouble breathing after suctioning.
  • Your skin around your trach (stoma) has signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.
  • You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
  • You are sick to your stomach and cannot drink fluids.
  • Your secretions change.

Watch closely for any changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

    Make sure you have your emergency supplies, including the obturator, available when help arrives or when you arrive at the doctor's office.

Tracheostomy: Returning Home

What happens on the day of your tracheostomy?

  • Follow the instructions exactly about when to stop eating and drinking. If you don't, your surgery may be canceled. If your doctor told you to take your medicines on the day of surgery, take them with only a sip of water.
  • Take a bath or shower before you come in for your surgery. Do not apply lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or nail polish.
  • Do not shave the surgical site yourself.
  • Take off all jewelry and piercings. And take out contact lenses, if you wear them.

At the hospital or surgery center

  • Bring a picture ID.
  • The area for surgery is often marked to make sure there are no errors.
  • You will be kept comfortable and safe by your anesthesia provider. The anesthesia may make you sleep. Or it may just numb the area being worked on.
  • The surgery will take about 30 minutes.
  • You will have a bandage over the surgery area. A nurse will check and clean your trach every few hours.

How is a tracheostomy done?

During the surgery, the doctor makes a few small cuts (incisions) to create an opening in your neck. Then the doctor puts a breathing tube through the opening and into your trachea. This tube, called a tracheostomy or trach tube, makes it easier for air to get to your lungs. It also helps remove mucus and other fluids from your lungs.

After the trach tube is put in, the opening may be left open. Or it might be made smaller around the tube with stitches or clips. If you no longer need the tube, the doctor will remove it. You will have a small scar on your neck that fades over time.

You may get medicine so you will be asleep during the surgery. Or you may be awake, but you will get medicine so you don't feel pain.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.