Trachea windpipe overview vector

Trachea: Overview, Anatomy, and Function (2024)

by | Updated: Jan 27, 2024

The trachea serves as a critical conduit in the human respiratory system, bridging the gap between the larynx and the lungs.

This tubular structure is not just a passive pathway for air; it plays an active role in respiratory health and is susceptible to various conditions that can significantly impact breathing and overall well-being.

Understanding the trachea’s anatomy, function, and the potential health issues it may encounter is essential for a comprehensive grasp of respiratory health and the challenges that may arise within this crucial component of the human body.

What is the Trachea?

The trachea, commonly known as the windpipe, is a vital part of the respiratory system. It’s a tube that connects the larynx (voice box) to the bronchi of the lungs, providing a pathway for air. Its structure is strengthened by rings of cartilage, ensuring it remains open for air passage.

Trachea anatomy bronchial tree illustration labeled

Anatomy

The trachea is a fundamental component of the human respiratory system, serving as the main conduit for air passage to and from the lungs.

Anatomically, it is situated in the neck and upper chest, extending from the larynx, or voice box, at the level of the sixth cervical vertebra, down to the level of the fifth thoracic vertebra, where it bifurcates into the left and right bronchi.

Structurally, the trachea is a cylindrical tube, approximately 4-5 inches in length and 1 inch in diameter in adults, exhibiting remarkable flexibility and strength. This strength and semi-rigidity are primarily due to the 16-20 C-shaped rings of hyaline cartilage that encircle the tube.

These cartilage rings are crucial as they prevent the trachea from collapsing, ensuring a clear airway for unobstructed breathing.

The open ends of these C-shaped rings face posteriorly towards the esophagus, and this gap is bridged by the trachealis muscle and elastic connective tissue.

The trachealis muscle plays a vital role in adjusting the diameter of the trachea, particularly during coughing, which helps expel irritants from the respiratory tract.

The inner lining of the trachea is composed of pseudostratified ciliated columnar epithelium, which includes goblet cells responsible for producing mucus. This mucus serves as a critical line of defense, trapping dust, pathogens, and other foreign particles.

The cilia, small hair-like structures, continuously move in a coordinated fashion, pushing the mucus upward towards the throat where it can be expelled or swallowed, thereby keeping the airway clear of debris and potential pathogens.

Richly supplied with blood vessels and nerves, the trachea is highly sensitive to irritants, which can trigger a cough reflex. This sensitivity is an important protective mechanism against inhalation of harmful substances.

The trachea’s intimate relationship with surrounding structures, such as the esophagus, thyroid gland, and major blood vessels, reflects its integral role in the neck’s complex anatomical network.

Structure

The trachea is a crucial component of the human respiratory system. Here’s a detailed look at its structure:

  • Tubular Shape: The trachea is a cylindrical tube about 4-5 inches (10-12 cm) long and 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter in adults.
  • Location: It begins just under the larynx (voice box) and runs down behind the sternum (breastbone), then splits into two smaller tubes called bronchi, which lead to each lung.
  • Cartilaginous Rings: The trachea is supported by 16-20 C-shaped rings of hyaline cartilage. These rings provide structural support and keep the trachea open for air passage. The open part of each ring faces the back (towards the esophagus).
  • Trachealis Muscle and Connective Tissue: The gaps in the cartilage rings at the back of the trachea are bridged by the trachealis muscle and connective tissue. This muscle allows the trachea to adjust its diameter for air flow regulation.
  • Lining: Inside, the trachea is lined with a layer of mucous membrane, containing cilia and mucus-producing cells. The cilia move in a coordinated way to push mucus, which traps dust and other particles, upwards towards the throat where it can be swallowed or coughed out.
  • Blood Supply and Nerves: The trachea has a rich blood supply and is innervated by nerves, which makes it sensitive and reactive to irritants, leading to coughing.

Note: This structure is essential for effective and efficient breathing and plays a key role in respiratory health.

Function

The trachea serves several essential functions in the respiratory system:

  • Air Conduit: Its primary role is to provide a clear and efficient passage for air to move in and out of the lungs. The trachea connects the larynx (voice box) to the bronchi, which lead to the lungs.
  • Protective Barrier: The trachea is lined with a mucous membrane that contains cilia and mucus-producing cells. The mucus traps dust, bacteria, and other foreign particles, while the cilia move these trapped particles upward towards the throat, where they can be coughed out or swallowed, thus protecting the respiratory system from infection and irritation.
  • Flexible Structure: The C-shaped cartilage rings ensure the trachea remains open at all times, but also allow flexibility. This flexibility is important during swallowing, neck movement, and breathing, as the trachea can adjust its shape and diameter slightly.
  • Pressure Regulation: During breathing, especially forceful breathing, the trachea can alter its diameter. This is facilitated by the trachealis muscle, which can contract or relax to adjust the airflow, thus aiding in efficient respiration.
  • Vocalization Support: While the trachea itself is not directly involved in producing sound, it plays a supporting role by allowing air to flow to and from the larynx, which is where sound is generated.

Note: The trachea is a vital component in maintaining open airways for gas exchange, protecting the respiratory system from pathogens and debris, and contributing to vocalization. Its structure and functions are integral to the efficient working of the respiratory system.

Trachea vs. Esophagus

The trachea and esophagus are two distinct but closely situated structures in the human body, each serving a different critical function.

Trachea

The trachea is part of the respiratory system. It’s a rigid tube located at the front of the neck, extending from the larynx to the bronchi of the lungs.

Its primary role is to convey air to and from the lungs.

The trachea is characterized by its C-shaped cartilaginous rings, which maintain its open shape for unobstructed air passage.

These rings also provide the trachea with the necessary rigidity and flexibility to adjust during breathing.

Esophagus

Esophagus anatomy vector illustration

The esophagus is part of the digestive system. It’s a muscular tube situated behind the trachea that connects the throat to the stomach.

The esophagus is responsible for transporting food and liquids, swallowed from the mouth to the stomach for digestion.

Unlike the trachea, the esophagus does not have cartilaginous rings; instead, it consists of smooth muscle that contracts in a wave-like motion (peristalsis) to propel food downwards.

Summary: While both tubes run parallel in the neck and upper chest, their functions are distinctly separate: the trachea is involved in breathing and the esophagus in digestion. Their close proximity is anatomically significant, allowing for efficient use of space in the neck and chest, but also poses a risk, such as when food or liquid accidentally enters the trachea instead of the esophagus, leading to choking.

Conditions of the Trachea

The trachea can be affected by various conditions that impact its function and overall health.

Some of the common conditions affecting the trachea include:

  • Tracheitis: This is the inflammation of the trachea, often caused by a bacterial infection following a viral upper respiratory infection, like the common cold. Symptoms include coughing, pain during swallowing, and difficulty breathing.
  • Tracheal Stenosis: This condition involves the narrowing of the trachea, which can result from chronic inflammation, scar tissue formation following an injury, or prolonged intubation. It leads to breathing difficulties, wheezing, and stridor (a high-pitched breathing sound).
  • Tracheomalacia: This is a condition where the tracheal walls are weak, causing them to collapse, especially when breathing in. It’s often seen in children but can also affect adults, leading to cough, respiratory infections, and breathing difficulties.
  • Tracheoesophageal Fistula: This is an abnormal connection between the trachea and the esophagus. It’s usually congenital (present at birth) and can lead to coughing, choking, and pneumonia due to food entering the lungs.
  • Tumors of the Trachea: Both benign and malignant tumors can develop in the trachea. Symptoms depend on the size and location of the tumor and can include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and hemoptysis (coughing up blood).
  • Foreign Bodies: Inhalation of foreign objects into the trachea is a medical emergency, particularly in children. It can cause choking, inability to speak or breathe, and can be life-threatening if not promptly addressed.
  • Trauma: Physical injury to the neck can damage the trachea, leading to breathing difficulties, pain, swelling, and, in severe cases, airway obstruction.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) Although primarily affecting the esophagus, GERD can also impact the trachea. Acid reflux can irritate the trachea and larynx, leading to symptoms like chronic cough, hoarseness, and throat clearing.

Note: These conditions highlight the importance of the trachea in respiratory health and the varied nature of its potential disorders. Diagnosis and treatment of tracheal conditions often require a multidisciplinary approach, including pulmonology, otolaryngology, and sometimes thoracic surgery.

FAQs About the Trachea

What Does the Trachea Do?

The trachea plays a crucial role in the respiratory system. Its primary function is to provide a passageway for air to move in and out of the lungs.

It connects the larynx (voice box) to the bronchi, which lead to the lungs.

The trachea ensures unobstructed airflow and is lined with cilia and mucus to trap and expel foreign particles and pathogens, thereby protecting the respiratory tract.

What is the Tracheobronchial Tree?

The tracheobronchial tree is a term used to describe the branching system of airways in the respiratory tract.

It begins with the trachea, which splits into the right and left main bronchi, each leading to a lung.

These bronchi then further divide into smaller bronchioles, and eventually into tiny air sacs called alveoli, where gas exchange occurs.

This tree-like structure allows for efficient distribution of air throughout the lungs.

How Big is the Trachea?

The trachea is approximately 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12 centimeters) long and about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter in adults. Its size can slightly vary based on the individual’s age, sex, and body size.

Despite its relatively small size, the trachea plays a significant role in the respiratory system.

Where is the Trachea Located?

The trachea is located in the front part of the neck, extending downward from the larynx to the chest, where it divides into the left and right bronchi at the level of the fifth thoracic vertebra.

It lies anterior to the esophagus and is easily palpable in most individuals.

The location of the trachea is critical for its function in air conduction and its accessibility for medical procedures like tracheostomy.

What is a Tracheostomy?

A tracheostomy is a medical procedure that involves creating an opening in the neck directly into the trachea.

This opening, called a stoma, allows air to enter the lungs without passing through the nose or mouth.

It’s typically performed when a person has difficulty breathing normally due to an obstruction, illness, or injury.

A tube is inserted into the opening to provide an airway and assist with breathing. This procedure can be temporary or permanent, depending on the patient’s condition.

Is the Trachea Part of the Digestive System?

No, the trachea is not part of the digestive system. It is a crucial component of the respiratory system.

The trachea’s primary function is to conduct air to and from the lungs, allowing for breathing and gas exchange.

While anatomically close to the esophagus, which is part of the digestive system, the trachea has a completely different function and structure.

Is the Trachea Responsible for Gas Exchange?

The trachea itself is not responsible for gas exchange. Its role is limited to serving as an airway, transporting air to and from the lungs.

The actual process of gas exchange — the transfer of oxygen into the body and carbon dioxide out of the body — occurs in the alveoli, the tiny air sacs located in the lungs.

What Prevents the Trachea from Collapsing?

The trachea is prevented from collapsing by C-shaped rings of hyaline cartilage that encircle its length.

These cartilaginous rings provide structural support, maintaining the trachea’s open, tubular shape, which is crucial for unobstructed air passage.

The open part of the rings faces the esophagus, allowing the trachea to slightly expand and contract during swallowing and breathing.

What is a Tracheal Shift?

A tracheal shift refers to the displacement of the trachea from its normal, central position in the neck.

This can be caused by various conditions, such as a collapsed lung (pneumothorax), pleural effusion (accumulation of fluid in the pleural space), enlarged thyroid gland, or tumors.

A tracheal shift is typically a sign of an underlying issue and requires medical evaluation to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.

What is Tracheal Suctioning?

Tracheal suctioning is a medical procedure used to remove secretions, mucus, or other substances blocking or obstructing the trachea and airways.

This procedure is often necessary for individuals with a tracheostomy, those on mechanical ventilation, or patients unable to clear their airways effectively.

It involves inserting a suction catheter into the trachea to aspirate (suck out) the obstructive material, thereby clearing the airway and facilitating better breathing.

How Do the Trachea and Esophagus Work Together?

While the trachea and esophagus have different functions, they are anatomically close and work together in the neck.

The trachea, part of the respiratory system, transports air to and from the lungs. The esophagus, part of the digestive system, carries food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach.

During swallowing, the esophagus expands and the trachea slightly flattens to allow food passage.

The epiglottis, a flap of tissue, also plays a crucial role by covering the tracheal opening during swallowing to prevent food from entering the airway.

This coordinated mechanism ensures that air and food are directed to the correct pathways.

Why is the Trachea Called the Windpipe?

The trachea is commonly referred to as the “windpipe” due to its primary function of conducting air, or “wind,” to and from the lungs.

This term is a straightforward, descriptive analogy that highlights the trachea’s role in the respiratory process.

When we breathe, air travels through the trachea much like wind flowing through a pipe.

The trachea’s tubular shape, reinforced by cartilage rings, resembles a pipe, making the term “windpipe” both apt and easily understandable.

This colloquial name simplifies the understanding of its function, especially in educational and layman’s contexts, by directly associating it with the movement of air that is essential for breathing.

Final Thoughts

The trachea serves as a central conduit for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the human body.

Its remarkable design, with cartilage rings for structural support and mucous-lined inner walls for protection, allows for efficient and continuous breathing.

The trachea’s essential role in respiration underscores its significance in human physiology, making it a topic of great importance in the field of respiratory care.

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.

References

  • Downey RP, Samra NS. Anatomy, Thorax, Tracheobronchial Tree. [Updated 2023 Jul 24]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023.
  • Chaudhry SR, Bordoni B. Anatomy, Thorax, Esophagus. [Updated 2023 Jul 24]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023.

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