2 Types of Choking Emergencies and How to Help with First Aid

Normally, when we swallow food, a little flap called the epiglottis blocks the airway (trachea) so that the food is pushed down the esophagus down to the stomach. But sometimes this process doesn't work and the food gets stuck resulting in a blocked airway. This is called choking. With young children, choking often occurs when they attempt to swallow a small toy.

Prevention of Choking

Choking is one of those situations that can be easily avoided with a little thought. Here are some tips:

  • Chew food adequately and don't try to swallow large pieces.
  • Don't drink large quantities of alcohol before or during meals as this dulls the gag reflex which aids swallowing.
  • Avoid walking or other physical activity with food in your mouth.
  • Keep objects out of the mouth. For example, do not hold a pen cap or nails in your mouth when your hands are busy.

Two Categories of Choking

  • Complete Obstruction: This is where there is no air going in and out and as a result the casualty is unable to breath and unable to cough. There may be very high pitched wheezing sounds. Because the casualty can't cough they will most likely not be able to expel the object without assistance. As a first aider this is the time to do abdominal thrusts to force the object out. If the casualty is pregnant/obese then the rescuer must do chest thrusts.
  • Partial Obstruction: This is where the airway is not completely blocked. The casualty is able to cough strongly enough to expel the object on their own. Because they can get the object out on their own, first aiders should not do abdominal thrusts. Instead, just stay with the casualty and encourage them to keep coughing.

First Aid for Someone That is Choking

As long as the person is able to cough, you need not do anything other than remain at the scene and support the person. However, the situation worsens, there are first aid steps to take:

  • If the person is conscious, but not able to cough, shout for help and begin abdominal thrusts.
  • If the person is unconscious and not breathing, call EMS; begin CPR; and look in the person's mouth for an obstruction after each cycle of compressions, but before attempting to ventilate.

What To Do If You're Alone and Choking

If you are able to, cough as hard as you can, repeatedly. If you are not able to cough try giving yourself abdominal thrusts. Use as much force as you can.

Another option is to take a short, firm chair (with no wheels) and place the top part of the back of the chair just below your ribs and just above your belly button. Lean slightly forward and 'almost' fall on the top part of the chair. Try to mimic abdominal thrusts. Yes, this will hurt, but you don't have much choice.

If there are people nearby quickly go to that area. Do not hide out of embarrassment. For example: if you live in an apartment building go into the hallway and pull the fire alarm. Again, this will get you help. Or, start knocking on a neighbor's door.

Another option: quickly pick up a landline phone (it'll be easier to trace) and dial 9-1-1 and leave the phone off the hook i.e. don't hang up. Even though you will not be able to speak, they will send emergency personnel to the scene to investigate the call. So if you're not successful at dislodging the object, at least someone will come to your location.

Remember, once you are not getting any air into your lungs you only have about 30-60 seconds before you become unconscious so act quickly.

Statistics and Data

  • About 90% of choking deaths occur in the home.
  • Smaller children are more likely to choke if they have older siblings. Perhaps because of toys or horse play while eating.
  • Most of the choking emergencies occur within the first year of life.
  • In the U.S., choking causes the death of about 4,000 to 5,000 people per year.
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