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.
Some of the complications that can occur during or shortly after a tracheostomy are outlined below.
It's common for some bleeding to occur from the windpipe (trachea) or the tracheostomy itself.
This is usually minor and improves within a few days, although in some cases it can be significant and a blood transfusion may be necessary.
Sometimes air will collect around the lungs and cause them to collapse inwards. This is known as a pneumothorax.
In mild cases, this often corrects itself without the need for treatment. In more serious cases, a tube will need to be surgically implanted 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 is usually with antibiotics.
Some of the complications that can occur days, weeks or even months after a tracheostomy are described below.
Failure to heal
Sometimes the tracheostomy wound doesn't 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 is 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 aren't strong enough to support it. This usually occurs when the tracheostomy tube hasn't 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 keep the airways open.