The trachea, little known and appreciated, is a large membranous tube reinforced by about 20 rings of cartilage. The back part of each ring is made of muscle and connective tissue. In addition, moist, smooth tissue called mucosa lines the inside of the trachea.
The trachea, starting just under the throat, measures 4 inches long and less than an inch in diameter in most people. It runs from under the larynx (voice box) down to the bronchial tubes and transports air to and from the lungs. At the bottom, it then divides into two smaller tubes called bronchi: one bronchus for each lung.
Trachea: Conditions, Anomalies, And Diseases
The trachea is susceptible to a variety of conditions and diseases such as:
- Tracheal stenosis: Inflammation can lead to scarring and narrowing of the windpipe. Surgery may be needed to correct the narrowing (stenosis).
- Tracheoesophageal fistula: An abnormal channel forms to connect the trachea to the esophagus. Passage of swallowed food from the esophagus into the trachea causes serious lung problems.
- Tracheal foreign body: An object is inhaled and lodges in the trachea or one of its branches. A procedure called bronchoscopy is usually needed to remove a foreign body.
- Tracheal cancer: Cancer is quite rare. Symptoms can include coughing or difficulty breathing.
- Tracheomalacia: The trachea is soft and floppy rather than rigid, usually due to a birth defect. In adults, tracheomalacia is generally caused by injury or by smoking.
- Tracheal obstruction: A tumor or other growth can compress and narrow the trachea, causing difficulty breathing. A stent or surgery is needed to open the area and improve breathing
- Flexible bronchoscopy: An endoscope (flexible tube with a lighted camera on its end) is passed through the nose or mouth. Using bronchoscopy, a doctor can examine the area.
- Rigid bronchoscopy: A rigid metal tube is introduced through the mouth into the trachea. Rigid bronchoscopy is often more effective than flexible bronchoscopy, but it requires deep anesthesia.
- Computed tomography (CT scan): A CT scanner takes a series of X-rays, and a computer creates detailed images and of nearby structures.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan): An MRI scanner uses radio waves in a magnetic field to create images.
- Chest X-ray: A plain X-ray can tell if the trachea is deviated to either side of the chest. An X-ray might also identify masses or foreign bodies.
- Tracheostomy: A small hole is cut in the front of the trachea, through an incision in the neck. Tracheostomy is usually done for people who need a long period of breathing support.
- Tracheal dilation: During bronchoscopy, a balloon can be inflated in the trachea, opening a narrowing (stenosis).
- Laser therapy: Blockages such as from cancer can be destroyed with a high-energy laser.
- Tracheal stenting: After dilation of a tracheal obstruction, a stent is placed to keep the area open. Silicone or metal stents may be used.
- Tracheal surgery: Surgery may be best for removing certain obstructing tumors. Surgery may also correct an abnormal channel linking to the esophagus.
- Cryotherapy: During bronchoscopy, a tool can freeze and destroy a tumor obstructing the trachea.