Breathing changes

If breathing is difficult or swelling of the airway is expected after surgery, the surgeon will make a hole in the front of your neck under general anaesthetic. This is known as a tracheostomy.

A tracheostomy tube is placed through the hole into the windpipe (trachea), and this allows you to breathe. It can be either temporary or permanent.

Temporary tracheostomy

  • Common after most types of surgery, and it will usually be done at the same time.
  • The tube will usually be removed after a recovery period, and the hole will close up within a few days or weeks with a simple dressing.
  • At first your voice may be weak and breathy, but it should return to normal once the stoma has healed.
  • Your speech pathologist will teach you to speak and assess your swallowing, and your physiotherapist will show you breathing exercises and airway clearance techniques to make breathing easier.

Long-term or permanent tracheostomy

  • Occasionally, people need a tracheostomy tube for several weeks during radiation therapy or on a permanent basis.
  • A permanent stoma or breathing hole will be created at the time of the surgery.
  • A laryngectomy tube may be used to keep the stoma from becoming smaller.
  • If you need a permanent stoma, your health care team will discuss this with you and teach you how to look after it.
Some states have support groups for people with head and neck cancers. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for details.

Listen to podcasts on Cancer Affects the Carer Too and Managing Cancer Fatigue


A tracheostomy is a surgically created hole (stoma) in your windpipe (trachea) that provides an alternative airway for breathing. A tracheostomy tube is inserted through the hole.


Living with a tracheostomy or stoma

Having a stoma or tracheostomy is a big change in a person’s life and takes some adjustment. Feeling self-conscious about the way the stoma makes you look and speak is not unusual. Addressing your concerns may help you come to terms with the change. Click here for ways to get support.

Caring for the tube – Your health care team will show you how to clean and change the tracheostomy or laryngectomy tube.

Coping with dry air – The air you breathe will be much drier since it no longer passes through your nose and throat, which normally moistens and warms the air. This can cause irritation, coughing and excess mucus coming out of the tracheostomy/stoma. Your speech pathologist or nurse will show you products that cover the stoma or to attach to the tracheostomy tube. This will provide heat and moisture for the trachea.

Swimming and other water sports – You will need to use special equipment to avoid water getting into the windpipe.

This information was last reviewed in May 2017
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