The trachea, known colloquially as the windpipe, connects the upper respiratory tract to the lungs via the tracheobronchial tree, enabling gas exchange.

The trachea is a tube-shaped structure consisting of 15-to-20 D-shaped cartilage rings anterolaterally bridged by annular ligaments. The trachealis muscle encircles the trachea completely but is most prominent posteriorly due to the lack of cartilage 4.

The trachea extends from the inferior margin of the cricoid cartilage (C6) and branches into the right and left main bronchi at the carina, located at the T4 vertebral body level, in the plane of Ludwig. It is usually situated in a midline position and can be displaced slightly to the right at the arch of the aorta 1. In the lateral view, the tracheal slants from an anterior position beneath the larynx to a posterior position at the carina 5. The tracheal length is usually between 10-13 cm with a width of 1.5-2 cm and is wider in men than in women 2, 3.

  • to inferior thyroid venous plexus
  • to pretracheal and paratracheal lymph nodes

The trachea has three layers 4:

  • external: loose connective tissue / adventitia: note there is no capsule
  • middle: fibromuscularcartilaginous membrane: tracheal cartilage, annular ligaments, connective tissue and trachealis muscle
  • internal: respiratory mucous membrane: tracheal glands with a pseudo-stratified columnar epithelium
  • tracheal bronchus or "pig bronchus" 6, 7
    • development of an extra bronchus that usually develops superior to the carina from the trachea, above the right main bronchus and connecting to the right upper lobe
    • common and can be found in 2% of people
    • may not present with any symptoms and can be an incidental finding usually via bronchoscopy, however, it may cause problems during intubation
    • may be associated with chronic atelectasis, bronchiectasis and recurrent pneumonia 
  • lunate trachea 8
    • coronal-to-sagittal ratio of the trachea is >1 giving rise to a lunate-shaped cross section rather than round or oval
    • may be associated with COPD and tracheomalacia
  • tracheal diverticulum 9
    • outpouching of the posterolateral tracheal wall, usually on the right side
    • majority of patients are asymptomatic although may present with a recurrent respiratory tract infection
  • oesophageal bronchus
  • tracheal buckling in young infants
Head and neck anatomy
Anatomy: Thoracic
Share article

Article information

rID: 29293
Systems: Chest, Head & Neck
Section: Anatomy
Tags: cases, cases
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Trachea anatomy
  • Tracheal anatomy
  • Windpipe
  • Anatomy of the trachea

Support Radiopaedia and see fewer ads

Cases and figures

  • Drag
    Figure 1
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Drag
    Figure 2: right sided bronchi
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Drag
    Figure 3: left sided bronchi
    Drag here to reorder.
  • Updating… Please wait.

    Alert accept

    Error Unable to process the form. Check for errors and try again.

    Alert accept Thank you for updating your details.