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The decision to intubate

Calvin A Brown, III, MD, FAAEM
Section Editor
Deputy Editor
Jonathan Grayzel, MD, FAAEM


The first step in any resuscitation is the verification or establishment of a patent and protected airway. Emergent defibrillation is the sole, occasional exception to this principle. Without adequate oxygenation and ventilation, all other potentially life-saving maneuvers will fail. Most often, clinicians secure the airway of an unstable patient through placement of a cuffed endotracheal tube.

The emergency clinician should be able to determine the need for a definitive airway quickly and confidently. Nevertheless, the standard resuscitation guides provide little more than brief, generalized statements about when to intubate [1-3].

This topic review discusses how to determine the need for intubation and provides a simple decision tool that is applicable to virtually all emergency patients regardless of age and presenting condition. Discussions of other aspects of airway management are found elsewhere. (See "Rapid sequence intubation in adults" and "Emergency endotracheal intubation in children" and "The failed airway in adults" and "The difficult airway in adults".)


Emergency clinicians must often perform tracheal intubation under stressful conditions. Skillful execution of tracheal intubation requires a good understanding of several methods of intubation, how to identify the potentially difficult intubation, the drugs best suited for airway management in different clinical scenarios, and management of the difficult or failed airway. Deficiency in any of these areas reduces the likelihood of a good patient outcome. (See "Rapid sequence intubation in adults" and "Emergency endotracheal intubation in children" and "The failed airway in adults" and "The difficult airway in adults".)

Even knowledgeable emergency clinicians, however, can contribute to patient morbidity and mortality by waiting too long to intubate. Inappropriate delays in airway management can convert a relatively controlled opportunity to secure the airway into a "crash" airway scenario, eliminating the opportunity for a well-planned, methodical approach. As examples, clinicians should not postpone intubation until the patient with anaphylaxis develops stridor or wait for worsening of hoarseness in the patient with smoke inhalation.


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Literature review current through: May 2015. | This topic last updated: Jul 2, 2013.
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