Adapted from the UK Intensive Care Society’s ‘Standards for the care of adult patients with a temporary tracheostomy‘
Bleeding from an established tracheostomy (ie. ‘late bleeding’, as to opposed to peri-operative bleeding that is more common and often benign) may occur because of erosion of blood vessels in and around the stoma site. This is more likely if there has been infection of the stoma site. Such bleeding may settle with conservative management. More worryingly, however, is the prospect of such bleeding being the result of erosion of a major artery in the root of the neck where there has been pressure from the tracheostomy tube itself or the cuff tube. Most commonly, this erosion occurs into the right brachiocephalic artery (also known as the innominate artery), resulting in a tracheo-innominate artery fistula. This situation may be heralded in the preceding hours by a small, apparently insignificant, sentinel bleed. Bleeding from such a fistula will be massive. THIS IS A LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCY and so decisions need to be rapidly made.
- Call for help– senior medical and nursing staff, other health professionals with tracheostomy care skills (e.g. respiratory therapist, physiotherapist).
- Clear airway – blood clots may need to be suctioned.
- Replace blood products as required
- Bleeding may be temporarily reduced or stopped by applying finger pressure to the root of the neck in the sternal notch, or by inflating the tracheostomy tube cuff (if present) with a 50ml syringe of air. This inflation should be done slowly and steadily to inflate the balloon to a maximum volume without bursting it. Depending on the type and size of the tracheostomy tube this may be anywhere between 10 and 35 ml.
- Urgent referral for surgical exploration must now be made, if not already done so. In addition to an ENT or maxillofacial surgeon, it may be necessary to get help from a vascular surgeon. Sometimes, the damage can only be repaired utilising cardio-pulmonary bypass, and so a cardiothoracic surgeon may also be needed to help.
- Consider palliation – it is well recognised that fatalities occur in this situation, and that this may be the mode of death for some patients with head and neck cancers