In its simplest form, a modern positive pressure ventilator consists of an compressible air reservoir or turbine, air and oxygen supplies, a set of valves and tubes, and a disposable or reusable "patient circuit". The air reservoir is pneumatically compressed several times a minute to deliver room-air, or in most cases, an air/oxygen mixture to the patient. If a turbine is used, the turbine pushes air through the ventilator, with a flow valve adjusting pressure to meet patient-specific parameters. When over pressure is released, the patient will exhale passively due to the lungs' elasticity, the exhaled air being released usually through a one-way valve within the patient circuit called the patient manifold.

Ventilators may also be equipped with monitoring and alarm systems for patient-related parameters (e.g. pressure, volume, and flow) and ventilator function (e.g. air leakage, power failure, mechanical failure), backup batteries, oxygen tanks, and remote control. The pneumatic system is nowadays often replaced by a computer-controlled turbopump.

Modern ventilators are electronically controlled by a small embedded system to allow exact adaptation of pressure and flow characteristics to an individual patient's needs. Fine-tuned ventilator settings also serve to make ventilation more tolerable and comfortable for the patient. In Canada, and the United States, respiratory therapists are responsible for tuning these settings while biomedical technologists are responsible for the maintenance.

The patient circuit usually consists of a set of three durable, yet lightweight plastic tubes, separated by function (e.g. inhaled air, patient pressure, exhaled air). Determined by the type of ventilation needed, the patient-end of the circuit may be either noninvasive or invasive.

Noninvasive methods, which are adequate for patients who require a ventilator only while sleeping and resting, mainly employ a nasal mask. Invasive methods require intubation, which for long-term ventilator dependence will normally be a tracheotomy cannula, as this is much more comfortable and practical for long-term care than is larynx or nasal intubation.