The trachea, or windpipe, is the tube that connects the nose and mouth to the lungs. It is an important part of the respiratory system because, when a person breathes in, air flows into the lungs through the windpipe. Any damage to it is potentially life-threatening because of its role in respiration.
The windpipe is comprised of cartilage and ligaments and is located at the front of the neck. It begins at the lower part of the larynx, or voice box, and continues to the lungs, where it branches into the right and left bronchi. The trachea typically measures 3.9 to 4.7 inches (10 to 12 cm) in length and 0.6 to 0.7 inches (16 to 18 mm) in diameter. It is composed of 16 to 20 C-shaped rings of cartilage connected by ligaments, with a cilia-lined mucus membrane. This structure helps push objects out of the airway if something becomes lodged.
Choking and Coughing
The trachea is connected to the same tubing system that allows a person to swallow, so the respiratory system has a mechanism to prevent respiratory failures. When an object blocks the windpipe, choking occurs. The coughing reflex allows the ciliated cells to push the object out of the respiratory system.
Damage and Repair
Any damage to the windpipe could seriously impair respiration. If it is damaged, a procedure known as intubation might be necessary. In this procedure, a medical professional places a tube in the nose or mouth and down to the trachea to get air to the lungs. The presence of fractures or inflammation in the trachea might require that a medical professional perform a surgical procedure called a tracheotomy to clear the airway. This procedure, which is performed while the patient is under general anesthesia, involves the surgeon making an incision in the throat area to create a hole in the windpipe, through which a tube is inserted to provide ventilation.
Inflammation of the windpipe can lead to other conditions, such as tracheitis, which is the inflammation of the tracheal lining. Tracheobronchitis occurs when the mucous membrane of the windpipe and bronchi become swollen, and tracheomalacia occurs when the connective nerve tissue in the area degenerates. Infections might result in what is referred to as tracheomegaly. A collapsed trachea, which is caused by defects in the cartilage that makes it unable to support the windpipe, can result in a dry, hacking cough. To detect and treat abnormalities associated with the trachea, computed tomography (CT) scans are often used.