What Does a Ventilator Do?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on January 02, 2023
2 min read

The coronavirus behind the pandemic causes a respiratory infection called COVID-19. The virus, named SARS-CoV-2, gets into your airways and can make it hard for you to breathe.

Estimates so far show that about 5% of people who have COVID-19 get critically sick. And about 1 in 4 of them may need a ventilator to help them breathe.

It is a machine that helps you take breaths if you can’t do it on your own. Your doctor might call it a “mechanical ventilator.” People also often refer to it as a “breathing machine” or “respirator.” Technically, a respirator is a mask that medical workers wear when they care for someone with a contagious illness. A ventilator is a bedside machine with tubes that connect to your airways.

When your lungs inhale and exhale air normally, they take in the oxygen your cells need to survive and expel carbon dioxide. COVID-19 can inflame your airways​​​​​​​ and essentially drown your lungs in fluids.

A ventilator mechanically helps pump oxygen into your body. The air flows through a tube that goes in your mouth and down your windpipe. The ventilator also may breathe out for you, or you may do it on your own.

The ventilator can be set to take a certain number of breaths for you per minute. Your doctor also may decide to program the ventilator to kick in when you need help. In this case, the machine will blow air into your lungs automatically if you haven’t taken a breath in a set amount of time.

The breathing tube may be uncomfortable. While it’s hooked up, you can’t eat or talk. You’ll need to get your nutrients through an IV, which is inserted with a needle into one of your veins.

A ventilator doesn’t cure COVID-19 or other illnesses that caused your breathing problem. It helps you survive until you get better and your lungs can work on their own.

When your doctor thinks you are well enough, they will test your breathing. The ventilator stays connected but set so that you can try to breathe on your own. When you breathe normally, the tubes will be removed and the ventilator will be turned off.

Show Sources


WHO: “Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

American Thoracic Society Patient Education Information Series: “Mechanical Ventilation.”

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “Ventilator/Ventilator Support,” “How the Lungs Work.”

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