Death and other complications of emergency airway management in critically ill adults. A prospective investigation of 297 tracheal intubations

Anesthesiology. 1995 Feb;82(2):367-76. doi: 10.1097/00000542-199502000-00007.


Background: Hospitalized patients outside of the operating room frequently require emergency airway management. This study investigates complications of emergency airway management in critically ill adults, including: (1) the incidence of difficult and failed intubation; (2) the frequency of esophageal intubation; (3) the incidence of pneumothorax and pulmonary aspiration; (4) the hemodynamic consequences of emergent intubation, including death, during and immediately following intubation; and (5) the relationship, if any, between the occurrence of complications and supervision of the intubation by an attending physician.

Methods: Data were collected on consecutive tracheal intubations carried out by the intensive care unit team over a 10-month period. Non-anesthesia residents were supervised by anesthesia residents, critical care attending physicians, or anesthesia attending physicians.

Results: Two hundred ninety-seven consecutive intubations were carried out in 238 adult patients. Translaryngeal tracheal intubation was accomplished in all patients. Intubation was difficult in 8% of cases (requiring more than two attempts at laryngoscopy by a physician skilled in airway management). Esophageal intubation occurred in 25 (8%) of the attempts but all were recognized before any adverse sequelae resulted. New infiltrates suggestive of pulmonary aspiration were present on chest radiography after 4% of intubations. Seven patients (3%) died during or within 30 min of the procedure. Five of the seven patients had systemic hypotension (systolic blood pressure < or = 90 mmHg), and four of the five were receiving vasopressors to support systolic blood pressure. Patients with systolic hypotension were more likely to die after intubation than were normotensive patients (P < 0.001). There was no relationship between supervision by an attending physician and the occurrence of complications.

Conclusions: In critically ill patients, emergency tracheal intubation is associated with a significant frequency of major complications. In this study, complications were not increased when intubations were accomplished without the supervision of an attending physician as long as the intubation was carried out or supervised by an individual skilled in airway management. Mortality associated with emergent tracheal intubation is highest in patients who are hemodynamically unstable and receiving vasopressor therapy before intubation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Critical Care*
  • Death
  • Emergency Medical Services*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / therapeutic use
  • Internship and Residency
  • Intubation, Intratracheal / adverse effects
  • Intubation, Intratracheal / methods*
  • Intubation, Intratracheal / mortality
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Narcotics / therapeutic use
  • Pneumothorax
  • Prospective Studies


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Narcotics