Male/Female Nurses

Tracheostomy Care Nurses

TRACHEOSTOMY CARE and tracheal suctioning are high-risk procedures. To avoid poor outcomes, nurses who perform them—whether they’re seasoned veterans or novices—must adhere to evidence-based guidelines. In fact, experienced nurses may overestimate their own trach care competence. Tracheostomy patients aren’t seen only in intensive care units. As patients with more complex conditions are admitted to hospitals, an increasing number are being housed on general nursing units. Trach patients are at high risk for airway obstruction, impaired ventilation, and infection as well as other lethal complications. Skilled bedside nursing care can prevent these complications. This article describes evidence-based guidelines for tracheostomy care, focusing on open and closed suctioning and site care

Suctioning a trach tube

A trach tube may have a single or double lumen; it may be cuffed or uncuffed, fenestrated (allowing speech) or unfenestrated. Each variation requires specific management. For instance, before suctioning a fenestrated tube, you must insert a plain inner tube, because a suction catheter may puncture the small opening of the fenestrated tube. (See Trach tube positioning by clicking the PDF icon above.) Regardless of the type of tube used, suctioning always involves:

  • Assessment
  • Oxygenation management
  • Use of correct suction pressure
  • Liquefying secretions
  • Using the proper-size suction catheter and insertion distance
  • Appropriate patient positioning
  • Evaluation

Also, be sure to keep emergency equipment nearby. (See Be prepared for trach emergencies by clicking the PDF icon above.)

When to suction

Suctioning is done only for patients who can’t clear their own airways. Its timing should be tailored to each patient rather than performed on a set schedule. Start with a complete assessment. Findings that suggest the need for suctioning include increased work of breathing, changes in respiratory rate, decreased oxygen saturation, copious secretions, wheezing, and the patient’s unsuccessful attempts to clear secretions. According to one researcher, fine crackles in the lung bases indicate excessive fluid in the lungs, and wheezing patients should be assessed for a history of asthma and allergies.

Suctioning technique

Before suctioning, hyperoxygenate the patient. Ask a spontaneously breathing patient to take two to three deep breaths; then administer four to six compressions with a manual ventilator bag. With a ventilator patient, activate the hyperoxygenation button. Experts recommend using suction pressure of up to 120 mm Hg for open-system suctioning and up to 160 mm Hg for closed-system suctioning. For each session, limit suctioning to a maximum of three catheter passes. During catheter extraction, suctioning can last up to 10 seconds; allow 20 to 30 seconds between passes. For open-system suctioning, catheter size shouldn’t exceed half the inner diameter of the internal trach tube. To determine the appropriate-size French catheter, divide the internal trach tube size by two and multiply this number by three. A #12 French catheter is routinely used for closed suctioning. Premeasure the distance needed for insertion. Experts suggest 0.5 to 1 cm past the distal end of the tube for an open system, and 1 to 2 cm past the distal end for a closed system.

Liquefying secretions

The best ways to liquefy secretions are to humidify secretions and hydrate the patient. Do not use normal saline solution (NSS) or normal saline bullets routinely to loosen tracheal secretions because this practice:

  • May reach only limited areas
  • May flush particles into the lower respiratory tract
  • May lead to decreased postsuctioning oxygen saturation
  • Increases bacterial colonization
  • Damages bronchial surfactant.

Despite the potential harm caused by NSS use, one survey found that 33% of nurses and respiratory therapists still use NSS before suctioning. Other researchers have found that inhalation of nebulized fluid also is ineffective in liquefying secretions.


When evaluating the patient after suctioning, assess and document physiologic and psychological responses to the procedure. Convey your findings verbally during nurse-to-nurse shift report and to the interdisciplinary team during daily rounds.

Trach site care and dressing changes

Tracheostomy dressing changes promote skin integrity and help prevent infection at the stoma site and in the respiratory system. Typically, healthcare facilities have both formal and informal policies that address dressing changes, although no evidence suggests a particular schedule of dressing changes or specific supplies for secretion absorption must be used