Ventilator Troubleshooting Overview Vector

Ventilator Problems and Troubleshooting: An Overview (2024)

by | Updated: Apr 28, 2024

Mechanical ventilation is a lifesaving intervention used in critical care settings to support patients with respiratory failure.

While this technology has revolutionized the management of acute and chronic respiratory conditions, it comes with its own set of challenges and complications that require vigilant oversight.

Healthcare professionals must be adept at identifying and managing a range of issues that can arise during mechanical ventilation, from mechanical problems like circuit disconnections and system leaks to clinical concerns such as respiratory distress and patient-ventilator asynchrony.

This article explores some of the most common problems encountered during mechanical ventilation, providing insights into their causes, implications, and strategies for effective management.

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What is Ventilator Troubleshooting?

Ventilator troubleshooting involves diagnosing and resolving issues with mechanical ventilators, which are critical for patients requiring assistance with breathing. This process ensures the device operates correctly, addressing problems such as alarms, pressure discrepancies, or power failures to maintain effective patient support and minimize risks.

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Problems During Mechanical Ventilation

Various problems can occur while a patient is receiving mechanical ventilatory, such as:

  • Respiratory distress
  • Ventilator alarms
  • System leaks
  • Circuit disconnection
  • Inadequate oxygenation
  • Patient-ventilator asynchrony
  • Artificial airway problems
  • Secretion buildup
  • Auto-PEEP
  • Accidental extubation

Watch this video or keep reading to learn about the most common problem that can occur during mechanical ventilation.

Respiratory Distress

Respiratory distress in the context of mechanical ventilation refers to a situation where a patient experiences increased difficulty in breathing despite being supported by a ventilator. This can manifest as rapid shallow breathing, use of accessory muscles to breathe, abnormal breathing patterns, or visible discomfort.

Respiratory distress can be caused by a variety of factors, including inadequate ventilator settings that do not match the patient’s current respiratory needs, progression of the underlying disease, development of new complications (like pneumothorax or pulmonary edema), or issues with the airway.

Recognizing and addressing respiratory distress promptly is crucial to ensure the patient receives adequate respiratory support and to prevent further complications.

Ventilator Alarms

Ventilator alarms are designed to alert healthcare providers to potential problems with the ventilator system or the patient’s condition. These alarms can indicate a wide range of issues, from technical malfunctions within the ventilator itself to changes in the patient’s respiratory status that necessitate immediate attention.

Common triggers for ventilator alarms include high or low pressure, high or low volume, power failure, loss of gas supply, and disconnection or blockage in the ventilator circuit.

Each alarm type requires specific troubleshooting steps to identify and resolve the underlying cause, ensuring the safety and well-being of the patient.

System Leaks

System leaks in mechanical ventilation refer to any unintended escape of air from the closed ventilator circuit system. These leaks can occur at various points, including the connections between the ventilator tubing and the endotracheal or tracheostomy tube, around the cuff of the artificial airway, or through defects in the tubing or the ventilator itself.

Leaks can lead to a decrease in the delivered tidal volume, resulting in inadequate ventilation and oxygenation of the patient. They can also affect the accuracy of monitoring data and trigger ventilator alarms.

Identifying and rectifying leaks is essential for ensuring the effectiveness of mechanical ventilation and the safety of the patient.

Circuit Disconnection

Circuit disconnection occurs when any part of the ventilator circuit becomes disconnected, either at the junction between the ventilator and the tubing, between sections of the tubing, or between the tubing and the patient’s airway device (such as an endotracheal or tracheostomy tube).

Disconnections can lead to a complete loss of ventilatory support, posing an immediate threat to the patient’s life. Such events are usually accompanied by alarms indicating a sudden drop in airway pressure.

Quick detection and reconnection of the dislodged parts of the circuit are crucial to prevent hypoxemia and other complications associated with the interruption of ventilation.

Inadequate Oxygenation

Inadequate oxygenation during mechanical ventilation occurs when the oxygen delivered to the patient’s bloodstream is insufficient to meet metabolic demands, leading to hypoxemia (low blood oxygen levels).

This can result from several factors, including inappropriate ventilator settings (such as too low oxygen concentration or insufficient ventilation), lung conditions that impair gas exchange (like pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, or pulmonary edema), or issues with the distribution of ventilation and perfusion within the lungs.

Monitoring oxygen saturation levels and arterial blood gases helps in identifying inadequate oxygenation. Adjustments to the ventilator settings or interventions to address the underlying cause are necessary to improve the patient’s oxygenation status.

Patient-Ventilator Asynchrony

Patient-ventilator asynchrony refers to a mismatch between the timing or magnitude of the patient’s spontaneous breathing efforts and the mechanical support provided by the ventilator. This lack of synchrony can lead to discomfort, increased work of breathing, and potentially inadequate ventilation or oxygenation.

Asynchrony can be caused by inappropriate ventilator settings, changes in the patient’s respiratory drive or lung mechanics, or issues with the ventilator’s sensitivity to the patient’s efforts.

Recognizing asynchrony is important for optimizing ventilator support, which may involve adjusting the ventilator settings, sedation levels, or, in some cases, changing the mode of ventilation to better match the patient’s needs.

Artificial Airway Problems

Artificial airway problems during mechanical ventilation involve complications with the devices used to secure an airway, such as endotracheal tubes or tracheostomy tubes. These complications can include displacement or migration of the tube, obstruction by mucus or blood, cuff leaks, or damage to the airway mucosa.

Issues with the artificial airway can lead to decreased ventilation efficiency, inadequate oxygenation, increased risk of aspiration, and potentially damage to the airway itself.

Prompt identification and management of these problems are essential to ensure effective ventilation and to prevent harm to the patient. This may involve suctioning secretions, repositioning or replacing the tube, or adjusting cuff pressure.

Secretion Buildup

Secretion buildup in the airways or ventilator circuit can significantly impact the effectiveness of mechanical ventilation. Accumulation of secretions can obstruct airflow, leading to increased airway resistance, decreased lung compliance, and impaired gas exchange.

This buildup can also serve as a medium for bacterial growth, increasing the risk of ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP).

Effective management includes regular assessment and clearance of secretions through techniques such as suctioning, humidification of inspired gases, and the use of mucolytic agents if necessary.

Ensuring adequate hydration and possibly adjusting ventilator settings to improve cough efficiency may also be part of the strategy to minimize secretion buildup.


Auto-PEEP, also known as intrinsic PEEP or inadvertent PEEP, occurs when air becomes trapped in the lungs at the end of expiration due to incomplete lung emptying. This situation is common in conditions where expiratory time is insufficient or airflow obstruction is present, such as in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Auto-PEEP can lead to increased work of breathing, decreased cardiac output, and patient-ventilator asynchrony. Detecting auto-PEEP involves careful examination of ventilator waveforms and may require specific maneuvers to measure it accurately.

Management strategies include optimizing ventilator settings to allow more time for expiration, using bronchodilators to reduce airway resistance, and in some cases, directly setting the ventilator to apply external PEEP to counterbalance the intrinsic PEEP and reduce the work of breathing.

Accidental Extubation

Accidental extubation refers to the unintended removal of an endotracheal tube from the patient’s airway. This can occur due to patient movement, coughing, inadequate securing of the tube, or during care activities.

Accidental extubation can lead to a sudden loss of airway protection and ventilatory support, posing a significant risk to the patient, especially if they are not promptly recognized and managed.

Preventive measures include regular assessment of tube security, appropriate sedation management, and the use of physical restraints if necessary.

In the event of an accidental extubation, immediate assessment of the patient’s ability to maintain adequate ventilation and oxygenation is crucial, along with prompt reintubation if needed.

What is a Ventilator-Induced Lung Injury (VILI)?

Ventilator-induced lung Injury (VILI) refers to lung damage that can occur as a result of mechanical ventilation.

It can arise from the use of inappropriate ventilator settings leading to overdistension of the lungs (volutrauma), repetitive opening and closing of lung units (atelectrauma), or excessive oxygen levels (oxygen toxicity).

These mechanisms can exacerbate lung injury, leading to a cascade of inflammatory responses and further compromising lung function.

Note: Recognizing and minimizing the risk factors for these injuries through lung-protective ventilation strategies is essential in the management of patients requiring mechanical ventilatory support.

Ventilator Troubleshooting Practice Questions

1. What technical problems can occur during mechanical ventilation?
System leak, circuit malfunction, disconnection, inadequate FiO2, patient-ventilator asynchrony, inappropriate ventilator mode, and inappropriate ventilator settings

2. What are the steps for solving a problem during mechanical ventilation?
1) Analyze the situation, 2) Gather and assess related data, 3) Search for possible solutions, 4) Consider the ramifications of possible solutions, 5) Attempt solution and observe the patient’s response, 6) Determine if the problem is solved, and 7) If not, try a different solution.

3. What should the respiratory therapist confirm when responding to a ventilator alarm?
They must confirm that the patient is receiving adequate ventilation and oxygenation.

4. What steps can be used to protect a patient when a problem occurs during mechanical ventilation?
1) Respond to the alarm, 2) Ensure the patient is being adequately ventilated, and 3) Ensure the patient is being adequately oxygenated.

5. What should a respiratory therapist assess during ventilator troubleshooting?
They should observe the patient’s chest rise and fall, access the artificial airway, assess the patient’s breathing, perform auscultation, check for a disconnection, and check for a system leak.

6. What should the respiratory therapist visually asses during ventilator troubleshooting?
They should visually assess the patient’s level of consciousness, color, and accessory muscle usage.

7. If a problem can be quickly identified and rectified, what should the respiratory therapist do?
The respiratory therapist can proceed cautiously but must continue to closely monitor the patient.

8. If a problem cannot be quickly identified and rectified, what should the respiratory therapist do?
They should immediately remove the patient from the ventilator and initiate manual ventilation with a resuscitation bag.

9. What patient-related problems can occur during mechanical ventilation?
Artificial airway problems, bronchospasm, excessive secretions, pulmonary edema, pulmonary embolus, auto-PEEP, abnormal respiratory drive, change in body posture, drug-induced problems, abdominal distention, pneumothorax, and anxiety.

10. What artificial airway problems can occur during mechanical ventilation?
Tube migration, rupture or leakage of the cuff, kinking or biting of the ET tube, secretion buildup or mucus plugging, cuff herniation over the end of the ET tube, trauma to the carina by the ET tube, tracheal fistula, and separation of 15 mm airway adaptor from ET tube.

11. What is tube migration?
This occurs due to neck flexion or extension, which can move the tube 2 cm above the vocal cords or into the right main stem bronchus.

12. How can you solve kinking or biting of the endotracheal tube?
If the patient is biting the tube, you can insert an oropharyngeal airway. If kinking occurs, it may require removal and replacement.

13. How can you rectify problems with secretions or mucus plugs?
You can suction the patient’s airway and begin using a heated humidifier.

14. How can you fix cuff herniation over the end of an endotracheal tube?
Deflate the cuff

15. What should you do if the patient cannot be mechanically or manually ventilated?
In this case, it likely means that an obstruction is present. Therefore, you can try passing a suction catheter through the tube. If it does not pass, this confirms an obstruction, which means that you must deflate the cuff, remove the tube, and begin delivering manual breaths until reintubation occurs.

16. What risks are associated with the delivery of positive pressure?
Barotrauma and a pneumothorax

17. What are the signs of a pneumothorax during mechanical ventilation?
Increased work of breathing, increased accessory muscle usage, uneven chest wall movement, absence of breath sounds on the affected side, and a tracheal shift to the unaffected side.

18. What immediate treatment must be used for a tension pneumothorax?
Chest tube insertion into the 2nd intercostal space at the midclavicular line.

19. What should you do if a mechanically ventilated patient experiences secretion buildup?
Suction when indicated, monitor the thickness, color, and amount of mucus, add heated humidification if thickening occurs, and send a sputum sample to the lab for analysis.

20. Dynamic hyperinflation is also known as what?

21. What problems can occur when changing a patient’s body position during mechanical ventilation?
Accidental extubation, disconnection, or kinking of the ventilator circuit.

22. What causes drug-induced distress during mechanical ventilation?
This can be caused by chemical dependencies (e.g., drugs, alcohol) and may result in restlessness, irritability, and insomnia.

23. What is refractory hypoxemia?
It is a type of hypoxemia that does not improve with a high FiO2 setting, which means that it must be treated with high levels of PEEP.

24. What are the causes of patient-ventilator dyssynchrony?
Improper mode selection, inappropriate sensitivity setting, inappropriate inspiratory flow setting, inappropriate cycle variable, and inappropriate PEEP.

25. What alarms typically sound in the presence of a leak?
The low-pressure and low-volume alarms.

26. Where do most leaks occur during mechanical ventilation?
Most leaks occur around the ET tube cuff; however, they may also occur near the humidifier/HME, water trap, in-line suction catheter, or temperature probe.

27. What occurs when the patient is set up on an inappropriate mode of ventilation?
It may cause the patient to have increased work of breathing.

28. What should you assess when the low-pressure alarm is sounding?
You must check for a disconnection or leak, and you should also check the proximal pressure line to make sure it is connected and unobstructed.

29. A low-pressure alarm is often accompanied by what other alarms?
Low-minute ventilation or low tidal volume.

30. What causes the high-pressure alarm to sound?
Some common causes include coughing, secretion buildup, obstructions, or when a patient is biting the ET tube. It may also sound when the airway resistance has increased or when the lung compliance has decreased.

31. What is the apnea alarm used for?
It is used to determine whether or not the patient is apneic.

32. What should you do if the low source gas pressure alarm sounds?
You should ensure that a 50 psi gas source is available and check the high-pressure hoses that are connected to the ventilator.

33. What causes the I:E ratio alarm to sound?
It typically sounds when there is a problem with the flow.

34. What should you do if the I:E ratio alarm goes off?
Check for increased airway resistance or decreased lung compliance and treat the underlying cause.

35. How can you solve an I:E ratio problem in a volume-controlled mode?
Increase the inspiratory flow

36. What would cause the high PEEP alarm to sound?
The causes are similar to those of the high-pressure alarm, which include coughing, secretions, biting the tube, increased airway resistance, and decreased lung compliance.

37. What would cause the low tidal volume, minute ventilation, or respiratory rate alarm to sound?
The causes are similar to those of the low-pressure alarm, which include a patient disconnection, leak, or obstruction.

38. What should you do if the high tidal volume, minute ventilation, or respiratory rate alarms sound?
Check the machine sensitivity for auto-triggering and ensure the alarm parameters are set correctly. If using an external nebulizer, reset the alarms until the breathing treatment is complete.

39. What should you do if the low or high FiO2 alarms sound?
Check the gas source to confirm that the gas analyzer is functioning properly.

40. What are the signs and symptoms associated with patient-ventilator asynchrony?
Use of accessory muscles to breathe, pursed-lip breathing, minimal or absent cough, tripoding, barrel chest, digital clubbing, dyspnea on exertion, tachypnea, and tachycardia.

41. How can a nebulizer powered by an external gas source affect ventilator function?
It can cause high tidal volume delivery and increased work to trigger a breath.

42. What would you see in the presence of auto-PEEP when looking at the ventilator graphics?
The flow-time curve would show that the peak expiratory flow does not return to the baseline before the next breath. When looking at the volume-time curve during the expiratory phase, the tidal volume does not return to the baseline before the next breath.

43. What potential problems are associated with using a heated humidification system during mechanical ventilation?
The drying of secretions due to inadequate humidification.

44. How can you visually notice a system leak?
By looking at the ventilator graphics.

45. What should you do if the low-SpO2 alarm is sounding?
Order an ABG to confirm that hypoxemia is present.

46. What is accidental extubation?
It occurs when the endotracheal tube is inadvertently removed from the patient’s trachea.

47. What diseases can decrease lung compliance during mechanical ventilation?
ARDS, pneumothorax, and CHF.

48. What can increase airway resistance during mechanical ventilation?
Secretions and bronchospasm

49. How can you treat bronchospasm in mechanically ventilated patients?
By administering bronchodilator agents via a nebulizer (e.g., albuterol).

50. What should you do if an unknown problem arises while a patient is on the ventilator?
You must make sure that the patient is ventilating and oxygenating. If you are unsure, you must disconnect the patient and begin delivering manual breaths until the problem is identified and solved.

Final Thoughts

Effective management of mechanical ventilation requires a comprehensive understanding of potential complications and challenges that may arise during treatment.

From respiratory distress to accidental extubation, each issue demands prompt recognition and precise intervention to ensure patient safety and optimize respiratory support.

Addressing these common problems involves not only technical expertise in ventilator operation and settings adjustment but also a deep understanding of patient-specific factors and respiratory physiology.

As healthcare professionals navigate these complex scenarios, their skills in assessment, troubleshooting, and intervention play a critical role in mitigating risks and enhancing the care of mechanically ventilated patients.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


  • Mora Carpio AL, Mora JI. Ventilator Management. [Updated 2023 Mar 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024.
  • Chang, David. Clinical Application of Mechanical Ventilation. 4th ed., Cengage Learning, 2013.
  • Rrt, Cairo J. PhD. Pilbeam’s Mechanical Ventilation: Physiological and Clinical Applications. 7th ed., Mosby, 2019.
  • Faarc, Kacmarek Robert PhD Rrt, et al. Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.

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