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An endotracheal tube is inserted into the trachea to keep the airway open during surgery and afterwards, when the patient is waking up from a general anaesthetic, to provide oxygen. The tubes are also used to administer medications. After the tube has been inserted into the trachea – either through the nose, mouth or by a tracheotomy – the cuff is inflated. The inflated cuff anchors the tube in place and gives an airtight seal so the correct volumes and pressures of oxygen are delivered to the lungs. Because the patient is anaesthetised, he or she cannot rely on the body’s natural reflex to prevent mucus and vomit entering the lungs via the trachea, so the inflated cuff provides a barrier. This rubber endotracheal tube is named after Ivan Whiteside Magill (1888-1986), an Irish anaesthetist who brought wide-with-angled-end rubber tubes into mainstream use in the 1920s. The tubes could be inserted into the nose or mouth.

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    Glossary: endotracheal tube

    A flexible tube inserted nasally, orally, or through a tracheotomy into the trachea to provide an airway

    Glossary: trachea

    The windpipe: the part of the air passage between the larynx and the main bronchi.

    Glossary: anaesthetic

    An agent that causes insensitivity to pain. Applied to either the whole body (general anaesthetic) or a particular area or region (local anaesthetic).

    Glossary: tracheotomy

    A surgical procedure to make an opening directly into the windpipe.

    Glossary: hermetic

    A completely closed and airtight seal.