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The failed airway in adults

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


A failed airway exists when there is a failure on the part of the operator to effect gas exchange in a patient that cannot do so on their own. In the clinical arena, this most often occurs when there is an inability to intubate the patient's trachea (even after only a single failed attempt) and an inability to ventilate the patient adequately with a bag and mask to maintain oxyhemoglobin saturations above 90 percent. This is the "can't intubate, can't oxygenate" (CICO) type of failed airway. The term "failed airway", therefore is applied at any point at which the primary selected airway management technique is unsuccessful, and alternative techniques are not able to maintain oxygenation.

A second form of failed airway has been defined for emergency intubation, and exists when there have been three failed attempts to intubate by an experienced operator, even when bag and mask ventilation is capable of maintaining adequate oxyhemoglobin saturation [1]. This is the "can't intubate, can oxygenate" type of failed airway. When either of these two situations arises during emergency airway management, the clinician must take effective action immediately to avoid oxygen desaturation with resultant cerebral hypoxia.

A failed airway can arise during a rapid sequence intubation, during management of a difficult airway, or during management of a crash airway. Regardless of the circumstances leading to the airway failure, a deliberate approach must be used to ensure that oxygenation is preserved, and that the airway is ultimately secured.

This topic review will discuss management of the failed airway. Discussions of other aspects of airway management are found elsewhere. (See "Rapid sequence intubation for adults outside the operating room" and "Approach to the difficult airway in adults outside the operating room" and "The difficult pediatric airway" and "Emergency endotracheal intubation in children".)


The true incidence of the failed airway, as defined above, is not known for emergency department (ED) airway management, nor for patients undergoing anesthesia in the operating room. Analysis of over 17,000 ED intubations [2] in the National Emergency Airway Registry (NEAR III) found that rapid sequence intubation is successful in three or fewer attempts in over 98 percent of cases for which it is the first method chosen, and that surgical cricothyrotomy (also called cricothyroidotomy) is required in approximately 0.3 percent of all emergency intubations [3,4]. (See "Emergency cricothyrotomy (cricothyroidotomy)".)


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Literature review current through: Aug 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 14, 2015.
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  1. Walls RM. The Emergency Airway algorithms. In: Manual of Emergency Airway Management, 4th, Walls RM, Murphy MF. (Eds), Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia 2012. p.22.
  2. Brown CA 3rd, Bair AE, Pallin DJ, et al. Techniques, success, and adverse events of emergency department adult intubations. Ann Emerg Med 2015; 65:363.
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