Suctioning an airway

What is an airway?

An airway is a part of the body that conducts air to the lungs for breathing. The nose, the mouth and the trachea all form part of the airway. These parts of the airway clean, warm and moisten the air before it reaches the lungs.

People who are unwell might need an artificial airway. Artificial airways are plastic tubes that can pass through the nose, the mouth or the neck as a tracheostomy. When an artificial airway is in place, some of the important protective functions of the natural airway are bypassed.

What is suctioning?

Suctioning is a common procedure that removes oral and respiratory secretions from the airway and keeps it clear.

Why do patients in intensive care need suctioning?

When an artificial airway is in place, the tube needs to be kept clear so that air can pass into the lungs easily. Sometimes patients without an artificial airway may also need suctioning.

Suctioning allows for rapid clearing of secretions and prevents the airway from becoming blocked. Suctioning usually leads to an improvement in breathing.

What are the types of suctioning patients receive in intensive care?

A small tube, also called a suction catheter, is attached to suction and placed into the airway to remove any secretions and maintain a clear airway.

With an artificial airway, a suction catheter might be continuously attached. Otherwise, the suction catheter is used once then disposed of.

Suction is a relatively quick procedure and each insertion of the suction catheter will not last more than 10-15 seconds. Patients will be given time to recover from any discomfort between each pass of the catheter.

Suctioning may be required regularly, but the timing will be different for every person and will depend on what they need.

What are the risks?

Suctioning is important, but not without some risks. It is usually uncomfortable and will cause coughing. It is possible that there may be some injury to the airway tissues which can cause bleeding. More serious risks include decreased oxygen levels in the blood and a slow heart rate. These issues are often transient and can usually be easily managed by the clinical staff performing the procedure.

Publication details

Version 1.1. Published April 2016. Next review 2023.


The information on this page is general in nature and cannot reflect individual patient variation. It reflects Australian intensive care practice, which may differ from that in other countries. It is intended as a supplement to the more specific information provided by the doctors and nurses caring for your loved one. ICNSW attests to the accuracy of the information contained here but takes no responsibility for how it may apply to an individual patient. Please refer to the full disclaimer.