Airways and Intubation

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Endotracheal intubation is the placement of a tube into the trachea to maintain a patent airway in those who are unconscious or unable to maintain their airway for other reasons. Compared to the use of pharyngeal airways (oropharyngeal or nasopharyngeal), benefits of an endotracheal airway include:

  • Protection against aspiration and gastric insufflation
  • More effective ventilation and oxygenation
  • Facilitation of suctioning
  • Delivery of anaesthetic and other drugs via the endotracheal tube (ETT)

Previously restricted to the anaesthetic and operating rooms, advances such as rapid sequence induction (RSI) have meant that intubation is often performed in emergency or pre-hospital settings.[1] These situations are by their nature high-risk and there is some evidence that pre-hospital endotracheal intubation in adult major trauma patients with head injury actually increases mortality.[2][3] Similarly, there is evidence that the use of advanced airway management in the setting of an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is associated with adverse outcomes.[4] Many confounding variables exist - experience levels, lack of monitoring equipment, difficulties pre-oxygenating patients, etc - and the studies are retrospective; however, benefit should not be assumed.

Intubation is a technique that requires training, experience and regular updating to maintain competence. Anyone attempting it should also be capable of managing any complications that arise. GPs will vary in their ability: some will have developed a special interest during hospital training, gained postgraduate qualifications and may even perform regular anaesthetic lists; others will have an interest in pre-hospital and emergency care and may be involved in BASICS or ATLS to maintain relevant skills. The key principle is not to act beyond your personal level of competence.

Alternatives to intubation

Laryngeal mask airway (LMA)
This is widely used in the UK in more than 50% of surgical patients.

  • It consists of an inflatable silicone ring attached diagonally to a flexible cushion filling the space around and behind the larynx, creating a low pressure seal between the tube and trachea without insertion into the larynx.
  • It can be used in an emergency setting by providers not trained in tracheal intubation and is an option in the management of a difficult airway where intubation has been unsuccessful.
  • It is not a definitive airway and provides limited protection only from gastric aspiration.
  • It is becoming increasingly available on hospital resuscitation trolleys and is recommended in the latest ALS guidelines, given the ease of insertion and reduction in interruption of chest compressions.[5]
  • There is presently a lack of safety and outcome data on the use of LMAs.[5][6]

Oesophageal tracheal Combitube® (ETC)
The ETC is a double lumen tube combining an oesophageal tube with closed distal end linked by a short connection to a conventional tracheal tube.

  • It is designed for blind insertion and placement is determined by examination and auscultation, and cuffs can be adjusted according to whether the trachea or oesophagus has been intubated.
  • It has been used amongst first responders in North America successfully.[7] but its use in the pre-hospital setting can also be associated with serious complications such as aspiration pneumonitis, pneumothorax and oesophageal rupture.[8]

A tracheostomy provides direct access to the trachea by surgically making an opening in the neck. See separate article Tracheostomy for further details.

See separate article Cricothyroidotomy for further details.

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  • The patient is unable to protect their airway:
    • Loss of reflexes eg, obtunded or GCS less than 8.
    • Relaxation of muscles eg, hyperthermia.
    • Risk of aspiration from the stomach, blood or secretions.
  • Loss of airway patency or potential for obstruction eg, burns, epiglottitis.
  • Prophylactically:
    • High risk of losing airway protection or patency eg, local neck haematoma or airway burns.
    • To control the airway eg, pre-transfer, clinical deterioration expected, uncooperative patient needing urgent investigations or treatment.
  • Inadequate ventilation:
    • Treatment of hypercapnia eg, severe COPD, head injury.
    • Selective lung ventilation eg, massive haemoptysis, bronchopulmonary fistula.
  • Inability to oxygenate the patient:
    • eg, severe ARDS or severe CO toxicity.
  • Drug delivery: a rare indication eg, surfactant in a neonate.

Relative contra-indications:

  • Neck immobility or increased risk of neck trauma (eg, rheumatoid arthritis or suspected cervical spine injury) - this is not a true contra-indication, it just makes intubation more difficult. Consider fibre-optic intubation if available.
  • Anticipated "difficult" airway - unsuccessful intubation may lead to further difficulties, especially if anaesthetic drugs have been given. In this scenario it is best to continue bag and mask ventilation (if possible) and get immediate senior help, or use of other airway adjuncts or consider awake intubation. 

Absolute contra-indications (will necessitate a surgical airway or nasal intubation):

  • Total upper airway obstruction.
  • Total loss of facial/oropharyngeal landmarks.
  • Inability to open the mouth (eg, scleroderma or surgical wiring).
Ensure all equipment is in working order
Monitoring equipment
  • Pulse oximeter
  • BP gauge
  • Cardiac monitor
Oxygenation equipment
  • Oxygen source and tubing, including nasal prongs
  • Face mask
  • Anaesthesia bag or ambu-bag
Suction equipment 
Premedication and induction equipment
  • IV access
  • Review possible contra-indications to drugs
  • Draw up and label all pre-medication, induction and paralytic agents
Intubation equipment
  • Laryngoscopes with handles and blades of different sizes and shapes (curved/straight) - to estimate laryngoscope blade size, holding the blade next to the patient's face, the blade should reach between the lips and larynx
  • Check the light source is working and tighten the light bulb
  • Endotracheal tubes of different sizes
  • Inflate the endotracheal tube cuff to check for leakage
  • Means of securing the tube in place
Equipment for checking tube position
  • Stethoscope
  • CO2 detector or end-tidal CO2 monitor
  • CXR


  • Always have a back-up plan in case things do not go according to plan.
  • Preoxygenate with 100% oxygen via a well-fitting mask.
  • Consider pre-medications to counteract side-effects of intubation.
  • RSI can be used if conscious or unconscious.
Basic RSI protocol:
  • Preparation and pre-oxygenation - 100% oxygen for three minutes, time allowing; if limited, eight deep breaths approximating vital capacity.
  • Rapid-acting induction agent to induce loss of consciousness - eg, ketamine, midazolam 0.1 mg/kg IV, injected as a push into a fast-running infusion. Midazolam may not be as rapid as other agents, such as propofol or thiopental, and may not work in some tolerant patients. Use of an induction agent avoids reflex tachycardia, hypertension and rising intracranial pressure triggered by intubation with muscle relaxant alone. Other commonly used agents include etomidate, thiopental, propofol.[11] A small opioid dose can also be added - eg, alfentanil.[12]
  • An assistant applies cricoid pressure to prevent gastric content regurgitation from the onset of unconsciousness.
  • A neuromuscular blocking agent is used immediately following the induction agent, to achieve paralysis. Succinylcholine is the most commonly used muscle relaxant, favoured for its fast onset and short duration.[13]
  • Intubate.

Preventing gastric aspiration

Always assume in an emergency setting that a patient has a full stomach carrying the risk of regurgitation and inhalation of gastric contents. If possible, liquid contents of the stomach are removed with a nasogastric or orogastric tube.

Cricoid pressure is applied from the time of loss of consciousness until a secure airway is in place. Pressure is applied directly in mid-line on the cricoid cartilage, using tips of the thumb and index finger while possibly applying counter-pressure from the back of the neck. This occludes the oesophagus, again with the aim of reducing gastric aspiration, although the evidence for this is disputed.[14][15]

Patient position

  • The patient should be aligned without lateral deviation of the head or neck.
  • The head should be extended on the neck with a pillow under the occiput. If cervical spine trauma is suspected, have an assistant provide in-line immobilisation.
  • The neck should be flexed to approximately 15 degrees on the chest.
  • Try to keep the external auditory meatus and sternal notch in same horizontal plane (except infants or when cervical spine injury is present or suspected).

In infants aged under 2, the occiput naturally extends the head and the chin alone needs lifting into the neutral position. In older children a "sniffing" position should be used.


Intubation attempts should not last for longer than 30 seconds.

  • Begin by keeping your right hand free - it will be needed to open the mouth, control the head and to use suction etc. Inspect the mouth for loose teeth or for dentures and remove. Suction any secretions or vomitus.Once a satisfactory view of the airway is available the endotracheal tube should be handled.
  • Hold the laryngoscope in the left hand and the ETT in the right and introduce the laryngoscope over the right side of the tongue, sweeping the tongue to the mid-line. If using a Miller straight blade on the laryngoscope then the tip does not go into the vallecula (between the epiglottis and the base of the tongue).
  • Position the tip of the blade in the vallecula and lift upwards and away from yourself until the glottis is visualised.
  • Exert traction along the axis of the handle - do not use the teeth or gums as a fulcrum, as this will result in damage to teeth and/or gums.
  • Introduce the ETT into the right corner of the mouth, passing it through the vocal cords with the cuff positioned and inflated just beyond the cords.
  • Ventilate with high concentration oxygen and secure the ETT.
  • The following will help assess tube position:
    • Directly observing the endotracheal tube pass through the vocal cords.
    • Fogging of the tube on ventilation.
    • Look for symmetrical chest movement.
    • Listen over apices and base of lungs and stomach for equal breath sounds and no gastric breath sounds.
    • End-tidal carbon dioxide monitor attached to ETT.
  • Following successful intubation ongoing sedation, with or without  muscle relaxation is required.

Trouble shooting[16]


  • Dislodged tube
  • Obstructed tube
  • Pneumothorax
  • Equipment failure
  • Laryngoscopy:
    • Mechanical
      • Damage to teeth, lips, gums or other soft tissues.
      • Oedema of tissues (usually the result of multiple intubation attempts).
      • Coughing, laryngospasm, bronchospasm, vomiting (with a risk of aspiration).
      • Hyperextension cervical injury.
      • Temporomandibular joint dislocation.
    • Physiological
      • Cardiovascular responses - hypotension, hypertension, tachyarrhythmias, bradyarrhythmias in children.
      • Respiratory responses - coughing, laryngospasm, bronchospasm.
      • Raised intracranial pressure.
      • Hypoxaemia / hypercarbia - especially with difficult intubation or prolonged attempts.
  • Tracheal Intubation
    • Failed intubation and hypoxaemia:
      • Can ventilate with a mask - seek senior help, defer intubation or consider an alternative.
      • Can't ventilate - call for urgent assistance; if bag and mask ventilation is maintaining oxygen saturations above 90% and there is adequate time, consider other options such as the use of a bougie to guide ETT placement; or alternatives such as the use of LMA or Combitube® or fibreoptic induction or, if not, cricothyoidotomy. See example of a failed airway algorithm.[17] 
    • Misplaced intubation – oesophageal or right mainstem intubation
    • Obstruction - kinking of endotracheal tube, cuff over inflation or herniation, presence of blood, mucus or foreign body.
    • Mechanical damage - to pharynx, larynx, vocal cords, trachea, or oesophagus (including oesophageal dissection and perforation).
    • Aspiration and post-intubation pneumonia.
    • Pneumothorax

Nasal intubation, LMA & surgical airways also have their own complications, largely trauma to the airway or surrounding structures.

Avoiding problems

LEMON is a useful mnemonic for a difficult laryngoscopic view:

  • Look externally for any obvious impairment eg, obese, pregnant, congenital/acquired deformity.
  • Evaluate 3-3-2 rule with patient fingers ie, mouth opening (3), mento-hyoid distance (3), and hyoid-thyroid cartilage distance (2).
  • Mallampati - tongue/mouth size:
    • I - Pillars/palate/uvula fully visible
    • II - Uvula partially visible
    • III - Only base of uvula visible
    • IV - None of  the 3 visible
  • Obstruction - (OSA, epiglottis, mass).
  • Neck mobility - (rheumatoid arthritis, cervical spine collar).

Anticipate difficult intubations and seek experienced assistance in advance of the intubation attempt if possible.

Further reading & references

  1. Wang HE, Kupas DF, Greenwood MJ, et al; An algorithmic approach to prehospital airway management. Prehosp Emerg Care. 2005 Apr-Jun;9(2):145-55.
  2. Sen A.; Best Evidence Topics (BETS) review of current evidence - Prehospital endotracheal intubation in adult major trauma patients with head injury; BestBETs May 2005
  3. Mayglothling J, Duane TM, Gibbs M, et al; Emergency tracheal intubation immediately following traumatic injury: an Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma practice management guideline. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2012 Nov;73(5 Suppl 4):S333-40. doi: 10.1097/TA.0b013e31827018a5.
  4. Hasegawa K, Hiraide A, Chang Y, et al; Association of prehospital advanced airway management with neurologic outcome and survival in patients with out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. JAMA. 2013 Jan 16;309(3):257-66. doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.187612.
  5. Adult Advanced Life Support; Resuscitation Council UK Guideline, 2010
  6. Timmermann A; Supraglottic airways in difficult airway management: successes, failures, use and misuse. Anaesthesia. 2011 Dec;66 Suppl 2:45-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2044.2011.06934.x.
  7. Rabitsch W, Schellongowski P, Staudinger T, et al; Comparison of a conventional tracheal airway with the Combitube in an urban emergency medical services system run by physicians. Resuscitation. 2003 Apr;57(1):27-32.
  8. Vezina MC, Trepanier CA, Nicole PC, et al; Complications associated with the Esophageal-Tracheal Combitube in the pre-hospital setting. Can J Anaesth. 2007 Feb;54(2):124-8.
  9. Endotracheal Intubation by Direct Laryngoscopy; American Thoracic Society
  10. Freeman BD, Morris PE; Tracheostomy practice in adults with acute respiratory failure. Crit Care Med. 2012 Oct;40(10):2890-6.
  11. Morris J, Cook TM; Rapid sequence induction: a national survey of practice. Anaesthesia. 2001 Nov;56(11):1090-7.
  12. Lavazais S, Debaene B; Choice of the hypnotic and the opioid for rapid-sequence induction. Eur J Anaesthesiol Suppl. 2001;23:66-70.
  13. Perry JJ, Lee JS, Sillberg VA, et al; Rocuronium versus succinylcholine for rapid sequence induction intubation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Apr 16;(2):CD002788.
  14. El-Orbany M, Connolly LA; Rapid sequence induction and intubation: current controversy. Anesth Analg. 2010 May 1;110(5):1318-25. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e3181d5ae47. Epub 2010 Mar 17.
  15. Butler J, Sen A; Best evidence topic report. Cricoid pressure in emergency rapid sequence induction. Emerg Med J. 2005 Nov;22(11):815-6.
  16. Endotracheal Intubation; Family Practice Notebook
  17. Stephens CT, Kahntroff S, Dutton RP; The success of emergency endotracheal intubation in trauma patients: a 10-year experience at a major adult trauma referral center. Anesth Analg. 2009 Sep;109(3):866-72. doi: 10.1213/ane.0b013e3181ad87b0.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Chloe Borton
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
1366 (v24)
Last Checked:
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