What Is a Suction Machine?

A suction machine, also known as an aspirator, is a type of medical device that is primarily used for removing obstructions like mucus, saliva, blood, or secretions from a person’s airway. When an individual is unable to clear secretions due to a lack of consciousness or an ongoing medical procedure, suction machines help them breathe by maintaining a clear airway.

In practice, care professionals use suction machines as an integral part of a treatment plan when a patient’s airway is partially or completely obstructed. Some common uses include:

  • Removing respiratory secretions when the patient is unable to
  • Assisting a patient that is vomiting while seizing or unconscious
  • Clearing blood from the airway
  • Removing a foreign substance from a patient’s windpipe and/or lungs (pulmonary aspiration)

Since they can be used in conjunction with other medical technologies to treat a variety of life-threatening conditions, aspirators have become a mainstay in both pre-hospital and in-hospital settings. Given their ubiquity, it’s common to have questions about their uses and functions.

The History of the Aspirator

The first conventional aspirator was introduced by a cardiologist named Pierre Carl Edouard Potain in 1869. His aspirator was a manual machine that used a pump to drain abscesses and fluid buildup in the chest, with the goal of preventing heart failure. When electricity became commonplace and reliable, suction machines transitioned from manual devices to electrically powered devices. However, until the late 1970s, aspirators were extremely large and were often permanently affixed to a wall.

In time, many other types of aspirators were invented. Today, several types of suction devices are available for use or rent by both hospitals and patients.

  • Manual suction devices Manual devices do not use electricity, and their design can be as simple as a handheld bulb that’s used to expel mucus from a child’s nasal cavity. They’re often used in emergency settings since they don’t require electricity to function and are usually small and portable. However, it is difficult to use manual suction devices consistently and effectively over a long period of time.
  • Stationary suction machines For decades, stationary devices were the most common machines, as they were reliable, effective, and consistent. However, their lack of portability left a lot to be desired. Patients couldn’t be treated with a stationary suction machine during transport and it could only provide emergency care within a hospital’s four walls.
  • Portable suction machines Portable suction machines are growing in popularity due to advances in aspirator and battery technology. Portable aspirators are designed to be lightweight and easy to move or transport, making them perfect for both patients and medical professionals.

Manual, stationary, and portable suction machines all have their place in a modern care environment. Each has its own set of strengths, and medical professionals may utilize multiple types of suction machines during different phases of treatment.

Common Uses for Suction Machines

Suction machines are often used when a patient is experiencing liquid or semi-solid blockages in their pharynx, trachea, or other oral cavities. However, the ideal suction device may vary depending on a patient’s condition. Here are a few scenarios where patients or professionals may use a portable suction machine.

Ongoing Patient Care

Patients may require portable suction machines in their home if they are unable to clear their own secretions for a variety of reasons. This includes patients who are receiving palliative care and find it difficult or impossible to clear their own secretions, individuals with chronic illnesses (COPD, ALS, cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, etc.), or patients who have undergone a tracheostomy.


Portable aspirators are very common in a pre-hospital setting, as they play a crucial role in helping emergency responders establish ABC (airway, breathing, and circulation). In practice, pre-hospital providers often use portable suction machines to treat a variety of patients. This includes trauma victims with blood in their airway, overdose victims with vomit in their airway, and other victims that are experiencing a respiratory emergency.


Most hospitals have rooms that are outfitted with stationary, wall-mounted suction machines. Care teams often use stationary aspirators as a part of standard procedures such as tracheostomies, sinus-related ailments, and tonsillectomies.

However, hospitals often have a few portable devices for certain use cases. For example, if a patient needs an aspirator but there is no wall-mounted aspirator in the patient’s room, the care team will locate and retrieve a portable aspirator instead of moving the patient to another room. Additionally, they’re used to treat patients outside of a room when hospitals are at capacity.

How Portable Suction Machines Work

Portable suction machines generate negative pressure, which is channeled through a special type of plastic connecting tube called a single-use catheter. The negative pressure creates a vacuum effect that pulls any blood, mucus, or similar secretions out of the throat. The secretions are then automatically dispensed into a collection jar.

In order to generate negative pressure and remove secretions, portable suction machines rely on a few key technologies. Here is a shortlist of the most common components within a suction machine.

  • Disposable or rechargeable batteries Suction machines are outfitted with powerful batteries to ensure that they can provide suction capabilities when a reliable power source is not available.
  • Suction/vacuum pump The vacuum pump is often located inside of the aspirator. This is what causes negative pressure and is necessary for a functioning suction machine.
  • Connection tubing This connects the vacuum pump to the collection canister. It should never touch the contents within the collection canister.
  • Sterile patient tubing Patient tubing attaches to the suctioning tip and carries the patient’s secretions into the collection canister. Sterile patient tubing should be properly disposed of after each suctioning session.
  • Disposable canister The disposable canister holds the patient’s secretions and often provides overflow protection capabilities in case too much fluid is suctioned out of the patient. This canister should be disposable to ensure all parts of the suction machine remain sterile.
  • Power cord Portable suction machines come with a power cord that can be used to charge the machine when you’re close to a power outlet.
  • Filters Ideally, a disposable canister should support the use of bacteria/viral filters to prevent contamination within the aspirator’s inner components. Certain filters may also be used to protect against dust and dangerous gases that can damage the machine.

Once all components are accounted for and applied, activate the machine. Users can select a continuous or intermittent suction mode and adjust the level of suction to ensure all secretions are being cleared. Care teams using the ZOLL 330 Aspirator can also select the “Smart Flow” feature, which will help the machine function quietly during patient care. This minimizes distractions for the care team and patients alike.

How to Set Up a Portable Suction Machine

Before using a suction machine, make sure you have received appropriate training for the device and read the official product manual associated with your aspirator. Since different aspirator varieties have different features, only an official product manual will provide the most precise guidance.

While you are preparing the suction machine for use, make sure you have a few critical items. If these components are not available, the suction machine may not work as intended.

  • A power supply (for some machines, a 12-V DC automotive cable will also suffice if external power is available)
  • A disposable collection canister
  • Aspirator-to-canister connective tubing
  • Patient tubing (also known as the aspirator circuit)
  • A suction catheter or surgical suction accessory (the appropriate accessory depends on the procedure)
  • Spill control solidifiers to safely dispose of liquid biohazards
  • Any additional accessories that are required for the procedure and approved by the device manufacturer

Once you have all the necessary parts to begin the suctioning process, prepare the machine for use. The general process for setting up a suction machine begins with inspecting the outer components, such as the power cord, for any defects and damages. If all the pieces are in proper working order, connect the aspirator to a power source. For the ZOLL 330 Aspirator, lock the power cord into place by aligning the cord’s connecter with the triangles on the machine. If a power source is not readily available, make sure the machine is fully charged before you begin using it.

Next, attach the collection canister and tubing to the suction machine. Begin by securing the lid on the collection canister by pressing firmly on the entire perimeter of the lid until it is completely sealed. Then, attach the pour spout cap firmly on the lid’s pour spout. Next, secure the collection cap to a basket or other container to deter spills secure it with a hook-and-loop fastener if necessary. Once the container is set up, attach the connection hose to the aspirator’s vacuum port and the vacuum port on the collection canister; attach the sterile patient tubing into the canister’s patient port.

At this point, the aspirator can be turned on with a power button or power switch. When it turns on, the suction machine should begin a self-check to ensure all internal systems are working properly. This includes alarm conditions, pneumatic system function, internal communication, and the power system.

Double-check that you have followed the guidelines outlined in the product manual, and make sure that all exterior components (canister, tubing, fittings, etc.) are firmly connected. Then, verify that the machine is receiving the right kind of power. For the ZOLL 330 Aspirator, an external power icon will appear if it is drawing power from an external power source. If a slash appears, the cable or power source is not providing power to the aspirator.

Once the machine is on, perform an operational test to ensure the device is performing correctly. First, select “Surgical Suction” on the start menu. The suction machine will begin channeling negative pressure. Test the vacuum level by pinching the suction tubing and watching the vacuum gauge. It should rise to the surgical vacuum level (± 2 mm Hg + 8%). If it is higher or lower, make sure you are fully obstructing the opening when you pinch the tubing. If not, check again to ensure the tubing and collection canister are assembled securely. If the vacuum level is not appropriate despite everything being assembled correctly, your aspirator may need servicing. Contact your device manufacturer for further guidance.

How to Clean a Suction Machine

A suction machine has many parts, so frequent cleanings are an absolute necessity. Ideally, medical professions should clean an aspirator after every use while wearing personal protective equipment to protect against hazardous waste, and then clean the reusable parts in regular intervals to ensure the aspirator and its components are free of dangerous contaminants.

The good news is that many aspirator parts are single use. Consult your product manual to determine what can be reused and what should be disposed of after use. With the ZOLL 330 Aspirator, the collection canister, canister lid, and associated suction tubing should be discarded after use. Make sure all single-use parts are disposed of in accordance with hospital and local protocols for medical waste.

Cleaning the ZOLL 330 Aspirator is simple. For regular cleaning, wipe down the unit’s housing and vacuum port with a damp, soapy cloth, and then dry it with a lint-free cloth. To disinfect after use, dampen a cloth with a 10% bleach solution and thoroughly clean the housing and vacuum port, taking care to ensure no liquid gets inside the aspirator. Finally, ensure the aspirator is completely dry before storing or reusing it.

There are some compounds that should not come into contact with a suction machine. Do not allow grease or oil to enter the system or coat the reusable components of your aspirator, and do not expose the inside of the aspirator to excessive amounts of water. Additionally, avoid using hydrocarbon or abrasive cleaners on your suction machine, as they may damage the casing or components.

Always refer to your aspirator’s product manual or cleaning instructions to confirm that your device has been cleaned properly.