Tracheostomy Tube Change

Updated: Dec 17, 2015
  • Author: William A Johnson, MD; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
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Tracheotomy has been performed since 1500 BCE and is one of the oldest reported surgical procedures in the medical literature. [1] Before the 19th century, however, the procedure was fraught with difficulty and only a limited number of successful tracheotomies were reported. During this early period, the indications for tracheotomy were few, but, beginning in the early 20th century, Chevalier Q. Jackson refined and standardized the procedure. [2] As experience with the procedure grew within the surgical community, morbidity and mortality rates decreased and its indications were broadened. In 1999, more than 83,000 tracheostomies were placed in the United States, most commonly for purposes of mechanical ventilation in chronically ill patients. [2] The image below depicts tracheostomy equipment.

Obturator, inner cannula, cuffed tracheostomy tube Obturator, inner cannula, cuffed tracheostomy tube, and tracheostomy tube Velcro tie.

The trachea is nearly, but not quite, cylindrical and flattened posteriorly. In cross-section, it is D-shaped, with incomplete cartilaginous rings anteriorly and laterally, and a straight membranous wall posteriorly. The trachea measures about 11 cm in length and is chondromembranous. This structure starts from the inferior part of the larynx (cricoid cartilage) in the neck, opposite the sixth cervical vertebra, to the intervertebral disk between T4-5 vertebrae in the thorax, where it divides at the carina into the right and left bronchi. For more information about the relevant anatomy, see Trachea Anatomy.

For discussion of the procedure of tracheotomy (the original insertion of the tube into the tracheal incision), see Medscape Drugs & Disease article Tracheostomy.

The postoperative care of patients undergoing this procedure is often underemphasized. Perhaps the most critical event after tracheotomy is the tube change, although many other aspects of the care of these tubes are critical (eg, suctioning, hygiene, humidity, emergency preparedness). The safety of current practice patterns in tracheostomy management is poorly defined. Little attention has been devoted to the morbidity and mortality associated with postoperative tracheostomy tube changes as a part of routine care, despite multiple reports describing the incidence of perioperative complications associated with the procedure. [3]

Cases of airway loss and even death have been reported, typically, although not always, in the perioperative period. In a survey administered to 46 otolaryngology training programs, 42% of respondents reported awareness of a loss of airway and 15% reported awareness of a death as a result of the first tube change at their institution during their residency. [3] Although tracheotomies themselves represent one of the most frequently undertaken hospital procedures, there is at present remarkably little evidence with which to direct practice in the postoperative care period. [3] These occurrences warrant an examination of the rationale and safety of this procedure, as well as specific guidelines for technical aspects of the change in both perioperative and routine settings.


Critical aspects to take into account when preparing to change the tracheostomy tube include timing, available lighting, the type of tube being used, setting, time of day, frequency of previous tube changes, and individual patient characteristics such as size, age, weight, and general health factors.


The interval between the tracheostomy tube placement and the first tube change allows a tract between the skin and the trachea to develop. Confirming stomal maturity at the time of the first tube change likewise minimizes the risk of establishing a false tract, which carries the attendant morbidities of subcutaneous emphysema, loss of the airway, mediastinitis, and even death. Confirming a safe healed tract allows for nurses or other trained personnel (eg, respiratory therapist) to safely perform subsequent tracheostomy tube changes.

The exact timing prior to the first postoperative change can vary. At the authors’ institution, the first tracheostomy tube change is performed after 5 days but can likewise be occasionally delayed in patients with impaired wound healing (eg, patients taking steroids, patients with poorly controlled diabetes, patients with nutritional deficits). This timing fits with survey studies of current practice. For example, the mean time interval between surgery and the first tube change has been reported as 5.3 days (range, 3-7 d) according to a survey of 46 training programs. [3, 4, 5]

It is also worth noting, however, that one recent study recommended waiting longer to change the tube, suggesting a window of 7–14 days following placement, so as to allow time for a stable endotracheal-cutaneous tract to form. [6] In a retrospective case series, the first tracheostomy tube change was safely performed at 3-4 days after routine tracheotomy procedures in 20 of 21 pediatric patients. [7]

Type of tube

The various types of tracheostomy tubes have subtle differences that are often underappreciated yet possess specific indications based on the needs of the individual patient. A discussion of the various nuances of respective tube designs is beyond the scope of this article, but these differences can depend on the indication for the tracheotomy, anatomic considerations, patient age, and availability, among other conditions. As such, some principles to keep in mind when selecting a tube are discussed briefly.

Tracheostomy tubes are available in various sizes and styles. The dimensions of tracheostomy tubes are given by their inner diameter, outer diameter, length, and curvature. [8] Tracheostomy tubes can be angled or curved to optimize fit into the trachea. Tubes can be customized with additional length at the proximal end (to accommodate patients with large or deep necks) or distal end (to accommodate patients with tracheal anomalies, eg, stenosis). [8]

Tracheostomy tubes are available with and without a cuff. Cuffed tubes are used to allow for a seal in the setting of positive end-expiratory pressure or to prevent downward flow of secretions. Specific cuffs on tracheostomy tubes can include low-pressure, high-volume cuffs; tight-to-shaft cuffs; and foam cuffs. [8] Fenestrated tracheostomy tubes have an opening in the posterior portion of the tube above the cuff, which allows the patient to breathe through the upper airway when the inner cannula is removed, facilitating phonation. [8] Knowledge as to the specific type of tracheostomy tube being used and the relevant factors to the particular situation that determined its selection are both critical, especially prior to a tube change.

The material of a tube is likewise an important consideration as the appropriateness of a given tube to a specific situation may vary according to patient necessities and the type of procedure involved. The majority of tracheostomy tubes are made of plastic and have variable range of flexibility. They can be made from polyvinyl chloride, a material that becomes softer when in contact with body temperatures, or silicone, which is by nature soft and is unaffected by body temperature. [9] In rare cases, patients may prefer metal tubes or those reinforced with wire, and these can likewise be used to secure airway patency. [8] Plastic tubes can be cuffed or cuffless, but metal ones are uniformly cuffless. [9]


The setting of the first tracheostomy tube change should be considered. At the authors’ institution, patients who underwent a technically challenging tube placement (eg, challenging body habitus, morbid obesity, cervical instability/presence of a halo, high degree of respiratory support, critical condition) have their tracheostomy tubes changed in a more acute care setting (eg, operating room). However, for stable patients in the routine setting, tracheostomy tube changes are performed in various locations in the hospital, including the general inpatient ward, a step-down unit, or the ICU.

Tabaee et al demonstrated that the initial tube change on the floor has been associated with higher risk of airway loss. [3] They concluded that the level of nursing and ancillary support on the floor may result in an inadequate level of care for safe airway management. [3] The authors believe that changes on general wards are safe in most patients, as long as adequate training, equipment, and support are available. Indeed, the respiratory therapy service at the authors’ hospital performs routine changes in stable patients weekly.

Patient issues

Pulse oximetry and supplemental oxygen may be warranted in patients who have comorbidities associated with poor pulmonary reserve. In addition, patients with above average neck circumference, elevated body mass indices, or otherwise unusual airway anatomy can be at greater risk of having a tube placed into a false passage in the anterior mediastinum. [10] In cases of pediatric patients, tracheostomy-related mortality rates as high as 3.4% has been reported, in part as a result of pneumothorax and the creation of false passageways. [11] As a result of this danger, and because pediatric patients are sometimes unable to verbalize their discomfort, careful monitoring of vital signs should be undertaken during the first tracheostomy tube change performed on a child. Additionally, tracheostomy tube change should be deferred in patients who are hemodynamically unstable.

For more information, see the Medscape Drugs & Disease article Pediatric Tracheostomy.


Studies have shown that regular tracheostomy tube changes can often result in a statistically significant decrease in the number of patients who require surgical intervention for removal of granulation tissue, information that is highly germane to best practice of the timing of tracheostomy tube changes. [12] Granulation tissue is a common consequence of tracheotomy, occurring in 10-80% of cases, and it typically appears as pink and fleshy protuberant tissue. [12] Histologically, it is composed of friable, immature blood vessels, which are prone to bleeding and can complicate a tracheostomy tube change by obstructing the stoma or with bleeding, resulting in loss of airway.

Topical applications of corticosteroid creams, antibiotic preparations, and silver nitrate have been proposed to address granulation tissue. [12] However, the question of whether tracheostomy tube changes that are more frequent than once every 2 weeks might eliminate the problem entirely or whether a certain subset of patients would require less frequent changes remains to be determined. [12] Another important element pertains to the design and material of the specific tracheostomy tube used on a given patient based on the current available information. For an inpatient, a polyvinyl chloride tube may be changed every 8 weeks, whereas a silicone tube should be changed every 4 weeks. Meanwhile, for an outpatient, a tracheostomy tube is best changed every 8-12 weeks. [13] The authors recommend tube changes weekly or biweekly to reduce this incidence and the possibility of bacterial colonization or superinfection.

Other issues

At present, there is no definitive set of published recommendations by which to set a standard for adult tracheostomy tube changes, and most current protocols are the result of local practices. [13] Regarding pediatric best practice, the American Thoracic Society has published guidelines on the specifics of the procedure as they pertain to the care of children; however, this information was released over a decade ago and may no longer be current. [14] As a result, future investigations designed in a prospective, randomized manner and with a sufficient number of patients are needed in order to enable clinicians to draw valid, concrete conclusions as to the optimal methods of evaluating and caring for these patients. [15]

In general, a tracheotomy is routinely performed in a sterile setting in the operating room. Postoperative change of dressings, suctioning, and first postoperative tracheostomy tube changes are performed with sterile equipment but under clean conditions. [8] Thereafter, care is usually performed under clean conditions. [12]

While the process of changing a tracheostomy tube (see the video below) is generally straightforward in the majority of patients, best practice dictates changes be performed only by someone who is skilled in the procedure. Furthermore, it is highly advisable to have 2 people present during any tracheostomy tube change and that prior to removing the old tube, all components of the new tracheostomy tube be checked for integrity. [14]

Tracheostomy Tube Change. Video courtesy of Therese Canares, MD, and Jonathan Valente, MD, Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University.

The designation of specific teams dedicated to performing tracheostomy tube changes also warrants serious consideration. For example, Johns Hopkins Hospital created a program wherein preidentified specialist teams composed of surgical staff, including credentialed otolaryngologists, trauma surgeons, interventional pulmonologists, specially trained anesthesiologists, a tracheostomy-trained nurse practitioner (NP), a tracheostomy coordinator, equipment specialists, ICU nurses, respiratory therapists, and experienced speech and language pathologists.

An institutional review was performed by Johns Hopkins after implementing this program; it compared outcomes in patients who had received tracheostomies in 2004, the year before the program’s implementation, and those who received tracheostomies in 2008. The review found that comparative outcomes, including the efficiency of procedure; the subsequent length of patient stay in an ICU; complication rates for bleeding, hypoxia, loss of airway; and a financial cost-benefit analysis, were greatly improved as a result of the program. [16]

Other programs that included a specialist service for the care of patients with tracheostomy tubes have likewise been found to have significantly reduced numbers of patients transferred from the ICU to the wards with tracheostomies in situ. [17] Thus, it seems evident that the combination of fewer tracheostomy patients per ward, the existence of a daily outreach service, and better nurse education are all likely to reduce the occurrence of tracheostomy-related complications.



The most common accepted indications for tracheotomy include the need for prolonged ventilatory support, upper airway obstruction, and pulmonary toilet. The benefits commonly ascribed to tracheotomy compared with prolonged endotracheal intubation include improved patient comfort, more effective clearance of airway secretions, improved ventilatory parameters through decreased airway resistance, enhanced patient mobility, increased opportunities for articulated speech, ability to eat orally, decreased complications of prolonged pressure of the endotracheal tube on the larynx and trachea, and a more secure airway. [18]

Indications for tracheostomy change include minimizing risk of postoperative infection and granulation tissue formation, verifying formation of a stable tract for ancillary support staff, and downsizing the tracheostomy tube if the patient is clinically improving.



Contraindications to a tracheostomy tube change are as follows:

  • Changing a tracheostomy tube too soon after operation (generally < 5 d) before tract has healed adequately, which increases the likelihood of entry into a false passage
  • Inadequate lighting, exposure, and equipment
  • Performer inexperience and unavailability of staff versed in airway management
  • Extremely high ventilator settings, which increases the risk of decannulation
  • Patient noncooperation without ancillary support


Anesthesia, sedation, and analgesia are not required for tracheostomy tube change.



Equipment required for tracheostomy tube change includes the following:

  • Tracheostomy tubes, 1 the same size as patient's existung tube and 1 a size smaller (If stomal obstruction is encountered, a smaller tube can be placed with more ease.) See images below.
    Obturator. Obturator.
    Inner cannula. Inner cannula.
    Cuffed tracheostomy tube. Cuffed tracheostomy tube.
    Obturator, inner cannula, cuffed tracheostomy tube Obturator, inner cannula, cuffed tracheostomy tube, and tracheostomy tube Velcro tie.
  • Empty syringe (for cuff deflation/inflation and for suction prior to the change to remove secretions being held up by the cuff; see image below)
    Top (left to right): gauze and hydrogen peroxide; Top (left to right): gauze and hydrogen peroxide; middle (left to right): syringe, forceps, scissors, lubricant; bottom: soft suction catheter.
  • Soft suction catheter (Soft catheters prevent mucosal trauma; use caution regarding latex allergy; see image above.)
  • Gauze, hydrogen peroxide (diluted 50%; see image above)
  • Water-based lubricant (facilitates atraumatic placement of tube)
  • Suction source
  • Mask, gloves, gown, eye protection (see image below)
    Gloves, gown, and mask. Gloves, gown, and mask.
  • Shoulder roll (see image below)
    Shoulder roll. Shoulder roll.
  • Ambu bag/tracheostomy collar with oxygen source (for preoxygenation)
  • Suture removal kit
  • Velcro ties
  • Tracheostomy tray (contains Trousseau dilators, which can aid in difficult placement; nasal speculum could also be used for this purpose)
  • Fiberoptic scope


Patient positioning is critical to the safety of the procedure. The bed should be adjusted to a comfortable height, and the rails should be released to allow the practitioner to get close to the patient.

The patient should be placed supine with the neck in mild hyperextension over a shoulder roll, if the patient’s general condition can tolerate such positioning. This positioning brings the tracheal orifice closer to the surface.

If the practitioner changing the tube is right-handed, the practitioner should stand on the patient’s right and the assistant should stand on the patient’s left. Reverse positions if the person changing the tube is left-handed.



The procedure for changing a tracheostomy tube is as follows [19] :

  • Ensure that the lighting in the room, specifically over the patient’s bed and neck, is adequate to visualize the stoma. In some cases, the use of a headlight is helpful.
  • Ensure that the necessary equipment is available, including an assistant who is competent in tracheostomy care, if possible. Check the equipment for functionality. For example, if the existing tracheostomy tube is being replaced with a new cuffed tube, the balloon should be checked for leaks.
  • Position the patient as described above.
  • If the indwelling tracheostomy tube is cuffed, deflate the balloon and suction the patient gently with a soft suction catheter to remove secretions being held above the cuff and in the lower airway. After doing so, the cuff can be reinflated, if needed, while remaining preparations are made. Additionally, this opportunity can be taken to preoxygenate the patient for several minutes to maximize his or her oxygen reserve.
  • Remove any sutures and ties to free the tracheostomy tube. The assistant needs to stabilize the flange in its place at all times to prevent premature decannulation.
  • Deflate the cuff and remove the tracheostomy tube.
  • Inspect the stoma for wound breakdown, granulation tissue, and adequacy of a tract into the trachea. Clean the area with gauze moistened with hydrogen peroxide, sweeping debris away from the trachea to prevent foreign bodies from falling into the lower airway. Next, clean the area with dry gauze in a similar fashion.
  • If stay sutures were placed at the time of the tracheotomy, apply traction gently, raising them up and out to provide better exposure, exteriorizing the trachea against the skin.
  • Apply the new lubricated tracheostomy tube, with the obturator within its lumen initially rotated 90º from its correct position, to engage the tracheostoma. Then turn the obturator back 90º to its correct position to be inserted into the trachea. This reduces the risk of creating a false anterior passage in the pretracheal space. If any resistance is encountered, do not advance further. Instead, remove the tube, inspect the tract again, and reinsert the tube.
  • As soon as the tube is in place, remove the obturator, as it occludes the lumen of the tube.
  • Replace the obturator with the inner cannula, which should be reconnected to the ventilator tubing if the patient is still mechanically ventilated.
  • Inflate the cuff.
  • Pass the soft suction catheter to confirm placement. Breath sounds should be elicited bilaterally; they should be auscultated easily and confirmed to be unchanged from the preoperative condition. Placement can also be confirmed with a flexible fiberoptic endoscope, if needed.
  • When placement is confirmed, secure the tracheostomy tube in place with the Velcro ties and remove the shoulder roll. Finally, any stay sutures or Bjork flap sutures can be removed at this time.


If recannulation appears potentially difficult, the railroad technique can be used. The railroad technique, described by Levy in 1982, is based on the Seldinger technique and can be used in difficult cases with continued maintenance of the airway. [20]  Pearls include the following:

  • Prepare the patient and equipment as described above. If an inner cannula is present, it is replaced with a hollow tube that is at least 3 times the length of the tracheostomy tube. [20] The tube chosen may depend on resources available and could include a soft, flexible suction catheter or an oral-gastric tube.
  • Hold the upper end of the tube by the thumb and index finger.
  • Remove the tracheostomy tube over this tubing.
  • The indwelling guide tubing functions as an airway through which the patient can breathe, if necessary.
  • Using a Seldinger technique, slip the new tracheostomy tube in over the tubing.
  • Once the new tube is in place, remove the guide tubing. The patient may resume ventilation after replacement of the inner cannula.
  • Confirmation and reassessment are performed as above.

In the case of unanticipated difficulty with a tracheostomy tube change and a poorly visualized stomal tract, the illuminated blade of a standard laryngoscope can be used as a retractor to enhance visualization, thereby allowing the insertion of the tracheostomy tube under direct vision. [20] Critically ill patients with respiratory failure can undergo stabilization by emergency endotracheal intubation in the absence of upper airway obstruction. The tracheostomy tube can then be reinserted electively under more controlled conditions.



Although tracheostomy tube changes are routinely performed, the procedure is not without complications. [20] As such, a proper understanding of the procedure, as well as anticipation of potential problems, can facilitate an uneventful tracheostomy tube change.

The consequences of tracheostomy tube displacement can be dire and can include loss of adequate airway and death. Tube displacement is a rare event that may occur at any time during the patient's course, although it is most common during the perioperative period before the tract has matured. Occasionally, displacement occurs at the time of the first tube change, resulting from creation of a false tract in the pretracheal or peristomal region. This may present insidiously with respiratory failure and subcutaneous emphysema. Prevention is critical to avoid this grave complication. Measures that reduce the risk include confirmation of placement following the procedure with passage of a flexible suction catheter. Resistance met with this maneuver may represent improper placement.

As any medical procedure involves inherent risks, it is of vital importance to be prepared in advance to be able to control any life-threatening situations that may arise in patients with tracheostomy tubes. Having basic emergency equipment on hand at the bedside of a patient, such as a manual ventilator bag, at least 2 extra tracheostomy tubes (one of which is the same size as the patient’s current device and the other of which is smaller), and an obturator and suctioning devices and catheters, can in some cases represent the difference between life and death for a given patient. [21]