What is a Patent Airway?

oxygen mask and nebuliser image by alma_sacra from Fotolia.com

Medical professionals and those who work with trauma patients will hear the term "patent airway" used over and over. This is because a patent airway is absolutely crucial to the health and safety to every patient, regardless of their injuries.

Having a patent airway will not guarantee survival, but it can greatly increase survival rates, and having a compromised airway will almost always result in a worse outcome.

Patent Airway

A patent airway is one that is open and clear, where the patient is able to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Having a patent airway does not mean the patient does not have difficulty breathing, it simply means that if need be, oxygen can be administered without the use of surgical reconstruction of the airway. A patient who is talking and alert has a patent airway and should be able to use a nasal cannula, a face mask, or a nebuliser to help with breathing.

Compromised Airway

A patient with a compromised airway may have suffered maxillofacial trauma, neck trauma or trauma directly to the windpipe. Patients with compromised airway may turn blue, they may be agitated because of panic and their chest muscles may be retracting as they gasp for air. A patient with a compromised airway can quickly be helped by clearing the airway of foreign objects if choking occurred, changing position while maintaining spinal stabilisation or keeping the airway open with the jaw thrust manoeuvre.

Severe Cases

In some cases where injury is extremely severe, surgical procedures maybe needed to create a patent airway. In this case, a surgical cricothyroidotomy is performed by the medical professional. This procedure includes making an incision in the throat that goes into the cricothyroid membrane and a tube is inserted for direct administration of oxygen. This procedure can cause damage to the cricoid cartilage and should not be performed in children under 12 years of age.