A tracheostomy is usually safe and straightforward but, as with many medical procedures, it does carry a risk of complications.
The likelihood of complications will depend on:
- your age and general health
- the reason you need the tracheostomy
Generally, a planned tracheostomy carries a lower risk of complications than an emergency tracheostomy.
There are some complications that can happen during or shortly after a tracheostomy.
It's common for there to be some bleeding from the windpipe (trachea) or the tracheostomy itself.
It's usually minor and improves within a few days, although in some cases it can be significant and a blood transfusion may be needed.
Sometimes air will collect around the lungs and cause them to collapse inwards. This is known as a pneumothorax.
If it's mild, it often corrects itself without treatment. If it's more serious, surgery will be needed to implant a tube into the chest to drain the air away.
The nerves near the windpipe can be accidentally damaged, such as those controlling the voice box (larynx) or the tube that runs from the back of the throat to the stomach (oesophagus). This may cause problems with speaking and swallowing.
The windpipe or nearby tissues can become infected. If this happens, treatment with antibiotics is usually needed.
Some complications can happen days, weeks, or even months, after a tracheostomy.
Failure to heal
Sometimes the tracheostomy wound does not heal properly and starts to bleed.
If this happens, the tracheostomy tube may need to be temporarily removed so surgery can be carried out to stem the bleeding.
Blocked tracheostomy tube
There's a risk that the tracheostomy tube could become suddenly or gradually blocked with mucus and fluids if you're unable to clear your airways by coughing.
This risk can be reduced by ensuring the tube is cleaned regularly and any fluid is suctioned out.
Sometimes, the windpipe collapses in on itself because its walls are not strong enough to support it.
This usually happens when the tracheostomy tube has not been fitted properly. Treatment involves further surgery.
Accidental damage to the throat can result in the airways becoming scarred and narrowed, which can cause breathing difficulties.
Surgery may be needed to widen the airways. This may involve implanting a small tube called a stent to hold the airways open.