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Understanding Ventilator vs. Respirator

Pulmonary Specialist Looking at Chest X-RayWith the ongoing pandemic, people are hearing about respirators and ventilators more than ever as use has increased across the globe. The need for both is great in the medical community, but how are they used? 

Many people get the terms respirator and ventilator confused and use them interchangeably by mistake. However, these two medical devices are quite different and have different uses, so it is important to understand the differences. 

Ventilator vs. Respirator: What is the Difference?

When it comes to ventilator vs. respirator, there is a big difference in the purpose and the function of each device. Respirators are masks worn to protect the wearer from noxious substances, pollution or other particulates in the air, including airborne particles carrying infectious viruses. Ventilators, on the other hand, are mechanical devices designed to push air into and out of a patient’s lungs, providing artificial respiration for patients who are struggling to breathe, unable to breathe or who have stopped breathing on their own.[1] In short, respirators are protective masks, while ventilators help a patient breathe. 

As you can see, there is a significant difference between a ventilator vs. respirator, both in terms of what each device is and how each is used. Both are used in the medical field, but in very different ways. While respirators typically protect medical staff, ventilators are used on patients. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between a ventilator vs. respirator and learn more about how each works.    

How Does a Respirator Work?

A respirator is designed to protect the wearer from inhalation or exposure to harmful particles and contaminants. These masks can cover just the nose and mouth, or they can cover the whole face or even the entire head. Each type is used for a different hazard or harmful particulate, so it is extremely important to use the right type that provides the correct protection. There are several types of respirators, each used in different ways.[2][3] 

  • Filtering facepiece respirators: N95 respirators are a filtering face mask-type respirator commonly used in the medical profession. These disposable masks cover the nose and mouth and can filter out particles of specified sizes, including dust, fumes and mists. They do not protect against gas or vapor.
  • Elastomeric half facepiece respirators: These reusable masks cover the nose and mouth and feature replaceable cartridges or filters that provide protection from gases, particles and vapors. 
  • Elastomeric full facepiece respirators: These reusable masks also feature replaceable canisters, cartridges or filters, but they cover the entire face, including the eyes. As a result, they can offer superior protection from gases, particles and vapors. These are what are commonly referred to as gas masks. 
  • Powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs): PAPRs cover the entire head, which means they can be used effectively with facial hair and different head shapes, and do not require fit testing. They have battery-powered blowers that pull air through attached canisters, cartridges or filters to protect against particular gases, particles or vapors, depending on the filter used. 
  • Supplied air respirators: These are connected to a separate source via hose to deliver clean and compressed air. They can be used by people working long hours in environments that have not been determined to be immediately dangerous to life and health (also called IDLH). 
  • Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA): Much like a SCUBA tank, SCBAs have their own supply of air in a tank and can be open or closed circuit. These are used for entering or escaping from an environment that has been determined to be IDLH.  
  • Combination respirators: These can be either a combined supplied air and SCBA respirator, which features a self-contained air supply for use in IDLH environments, or a combined supplied air and air-purifying respirator, which cannot be used to enter IDLH environments. 
  • Escape respirators: These hood-style respirators are designed for single use in an emergency for a limited and relatively short amount of time. Different types may offer different levels of protection, but they will fit most adults for emergencies. 

In a medical setting, N95 filtering face masks are typical as they are disposable and simple to use. In some cases, other types of respirators may be used to provide protection against particular hazards.3 

How Does a Ventilator Work?

Mechanical ventilators are commonly used in a hospital setting to treat patients who require respiratory support or are experiencing acute respiratory failure.[4] They may also be used in medical transports or long-term home care facilities. The ventilator takes over the work of breathing for the patient when they are not able to breathe enough, or at all, on their own.[5] In order for a patient to be on a ventilator, they must be intubated, wherein a tube is inserted through the patient’s nose or mouth and into their trachea. The tube is connected to the ventilator, which pushes a mixture of oxygen and air into the patient’s lungs to make sure the patient is getting the oxygen they need. A ventilator is also capable of maintaining a low level or pressure to prevent the alveoli in the lungs from collapsing, and the intubation allows for the removal of excess mucus.5 

Ventilators are a form of life support usually reserved for the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and, therefore, are not used lightly. However, they may be necessary for a number of reasons, including:5 

  • Improving oxygen levels: Mechanical ventilation can allow for higher concentrations of oxygen to be delivered directly into the lungs. 
  • Reducing carbon dioxide levels: If carbon dioxide is building up in a patient’s body, ventilation may help get rid of the excess. 
  • Allowing the patient to rest: If a patient is working so hard to breathe that the rest of their body is struggling to heal, such as after a traumatic injury, ventilation may be necessary. 
  • Breathing for the patient: If the patient is unable to breathe on their own due an injury of the brain, nervous system or spine, or because their muscles are too weak, ventilation may be necessary. Additionally, patients who are unconscious and not breathing adequately on their own may require ventilation. 

Mechanical ventilation may be necessary for varying lengths of time, depending on the reasons for ventilation. Typically, a doctor will try to keep patients on a ventilator for the minimum amount of time necessary because there are risks to mechanical ventilation, including lung damage, infections and inability to get off the ventilator.5 

How is a Hospital Ventilator Different from a Tidal Assist Ventilator?

Now that you know the difference between a ventilator vs. respirator, you might be wondering how the mechanical ventilator used in a hospital setting is different from a tidal assist ventilator. Once again, these devices are quite different, particularly when it comes to how they are used. 

A hospital mechanical ventilator is a life-sustaining treatment device, and is only used when absolutely necessary and in a hospital where the patient is regularly monitored by medical personnel. A tidal assist ventilator, like the Inogen Tidal Assist Ventilation System®, is a non-invasive ventilator used in combination with a supplemental oxygen delivery device to help provide you with an extra boost of oxygen when you need it. Rather than breathing for you like a mechanical ventilator, a tidal assist ventilator helps improve your tidal volume, or the set amount of oxygen that is delivered with each breath, so that you get respiratory assistance upon delivery of your oxygen.4[6] 

The Inogen Tidal Assist Ventilator, also known as the Inogen TAV®, works with your high flow oxygen device to provide you with up to five times the tidal volume per breath than using oxygen alone. This is not a life support device, but is used with your oxygen device and a special nasal pillow interface to improve your oxygen levels and breathlessness. This provides improved endurance and reduced exertion for a better oxygen experience. With the Inogen TAV, you get respiratory assistance right at the start of your inhalation, improving your oxygen saturation and improving your ability to tolerate activities that previously left you breathless. Patients who have used the Inogen TAV report significant improvements in the way they feel and their ability to participate in daily activities. 

Do you find that, even while using oxygen therapy, you are breathless, exhausted and gasping for air? If so, the Inogen TAV could be the solution. Some people may hear the word “ventilator” when discussing the Inogen Tidal Assist Ventilation System and become concerned. This is understandable, as mechanical ventilation is a serious form of life-support. The Inogen Tidal Assist Ventilator, however, is a device that helps improve your quality of life on oxygen. Find out more by contacting Inogen today and learn how to breathe better with Inogen TAV. 

Oxygen. Anytime. Anywhere.

Sources cited:

[1] “Ventilator and Respirator: Explaining the Difference.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 26 Mar. 2021, www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/ventilator-or-respirator-difference. 

[2] “Types of Respiratory Protection.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Updated 6 Oct. 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/elastomeric-respirators-strategy/respiratory-protection.html. 

[3] “Respirator Fact Sheet, What You Should Know.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 Feb. 2020, www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/factsheets/respfact.html. 

[4] Carpio, Andres L. Mora, and Jorge I. Mora. “Ventilation Assist Control.” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 30 Apr. 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441856/. 

[5] Tobin, Martin, and Constantine Manthous. “Mechanical Ventilation.” American Thoracic Society, American Thoracic Society, Updated Apr. 2020, www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/mechanical-ventilation.pdf. 

[6] “Inogen TAV® (Tidal Assist Ventilator).” Inogen, Inogen, Inc., 3 Dec. 2020, www.inogen.com/products/tav-tidal-assist-ventilator/. 


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