Medical Errors in Manuscripts: People on a Vent Cannot Speak

Last post I posed a medical question. Why are there white stripes on IV catheters? Answer: If the catheter is lost in the patient, you can find it on x-ray.

Now for another common medical error seen mostly on television and at times in works of fiction.

Note to writers everywhere: Intubated people (those that are on a breathing machine) cannot talk or even moan.

I’ll start by covering the basics. The sound of talking (and other noises) is made when you pass air through your vocal cords causing them to vibrate. This is what your vocal cords look like.


When a patient is intubated, a large plastic tube called an endotracheal tube (ETT) is passed down the throat, through the vocal cords, and into the trachea. The end of the ETT should sit slightly above the carina. The carina is the bifurcation, or splitting, of your trachea into the right and left lung. The ETT is positioned there so both of the lungs get ventilated or inflated with oxygen.

This is what an endotracheal tube looks like.

Adventures of a Respiratory Care Student/Photobucket

When the ETT is fitted correctly, a person should not be able to make noise because air is not passing through their vocal cords, it’s passing through the tube. In an adult, the balloon at the end of the tube is inflated so that it fits snug inside the trachea. If we hear an intubated person speaking or moaning, we know that air is passing through the vocal cords again and something is wrong with the ETT.

It could be as simple as the balloon or “cuff” needing to be inflated with a little more air so it fits snug again. It could be as complicated as the patient has become extubated—meaning the ETT is no longer in the trachea and you go in the room and find the patient holding the tube in their hand.

Medical question for you: How are intubated patients kept from extubating themselves?

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