PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Choking is the physiological response to sudden airways obstruction. Foreign body airway obstruction (FBAO) causes asphyxia and is a terrifying condition, occurring very acutely, with the patient often unable to explain what is happening to them. If severe, it can result in rapid loss of consciousness and death if first aid is not undertaken quickly and successfully. Immediate recognition and response are of the utmost importance.
Choking due to inhalation of a foreign body usually occurs whilst eating; it need not have been a formal 'sit-down' meal - a snack eaten 'on-the-go' or chewing gum can also be inhaled.
Because recognition is the key to successful outcome, it is important to ask the conscious victim "Are you choking?". This at least gives the victim who is unable to speak the opportunity to respond by nodding!
Consider the diagnosis of choking particularly if:
- Episode occurs whilst eating, and onset was very sudden.
- Adult victim - may clutch his or her neck, or points to throat.
- Child victim - there may be clues, eg seen eating or playing with small items just before onset of symptoms.
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- Mild obstruction:
- The patient is able to breathe, cough effectively and speak.
- Children are fully responsive, crying or verbally respond to questions, may have loud cough (and able to take a breath before coughing).
- Severe obstruction is indicated by:
- Victim unable to breathe or speak/vocalise.
- Wheezy breath sounds.
- Attempts at coughing are quiet or silent.
- Cyanosis and diminishing conscious level (particularly in children).
- Victim unconscious.
- In mild obstruction, encourage the patient to continue coughing, but do nothing else except monitor for deterioration.
- In severe obstruction in a conscious patient:
- Stand to the side and slightly behind the victim, support the chest with one hand and lean the victim well forwards (so that the obstructing object comes out of the mouth rather than going further down the airway).
- Give up to five sharp back blows between the shoulder blades with the heel of your other hand (checking after each if the obstruction has been relieved).
- If unsuccessful, give up to five abdominal thrusts. Stand behind the victim (who is leaning forward) put both arms around the upper abdomen and clench one fist, grasp it with the other hand and pull sharply inwards and upwards.
- Continue alternating five back blows and five abdominal thrusts until successful or the patient becomes unconscious.
- Lower the patient to the floor.
- Call an ambulance immediately.
- Begin CPR (even if a pulse is present in the unconscious choking victim).
- If coughing effectively, just encourage the child to cough, and monitor continuously.
- If coughing is, or is becoming, ineffective, shout for help and assess the child's conscious level.
- If the child is conscious, give up to five back blows, followed by five chest thrusts to infants or five abdominal thrusts to children (repeat the sequence until the obstruction is relieved or the patient becomes unconscious).
- For infants (<1 year old): back blows and chest thrusts:
- In a seated position, support the infant in a head-downwards, prone position to let gravity aid removal of the foreign body.
- Support the head by placing the thumb of one hand at the angle of the lower jaw, and one or two fingers from the same hand at the same point on the other side of the jaw. Do not compress the soft tissues under the jaw, as this will aggravate the airway obstruction.
- Deliver up to five sharp blows with the heel of your hand to the middle of the back (between the shoulder blades).
- After each blow, assess to see if the foreign body has been dislodged and, if not, repeat the manoeuvre up to five times.
- After five unsuccessful back blows, use chest thrusts: turn the infant into a head-downwards supine position by placing your free arm along the infant's back and encircling the occiput with your hand. Support the infant down your arm, which is placed down (or across) your thigh. Identify the landmark for chest compression. This is the lower sternum, about a finger's breadth above the xiphisternum. Deliver five chest thrusts. These are similar to chest compressions for CPR, but sharper in nature and delivered at a slower rate.
- For children (1 year old to puberty): back blows and abdominal thrusts:
- Blows to the back are more effective if the child is positioned head down. A small child can be placed across the lap as with an infant. If this is not possible, support the child in a forward-leaning position.
- Deliver up to five sharp back blows with the heel of one hand in the middle of the back between the shoulder blades.
- After five unsuccessful back blows, abdominal thrusts may be used in children over 1 year old:
- Stand or kneel behind the child, placing arms around torso. Placed clenched fist between the umbilicus and xiphisternum (ensuring no pressure is applied to either landmark).
- Grasp this hand with your other hand and pull sharply inwards and upwards, repeating up to 5 times.
- For infants (<1 year old): back blows and chest thrusts:
- If the child becomes unconscious, place him or her on a flat, firm surface, shouting for help if none has arrived. Open the mouth and look for any obvious object. If one is seen, make an attempt to remove it with a single finger sweep (don't do blind finger sweeps).
- If unsuccessful, begin CPR as for paediatric basic life support, beginning with five rescue breaths, checking for rise and fall of the chest each time (reposition the head each time if a breath does not make the chest rise, before making the next attempt).
Choking is a risk whenever food is consumed. A US study suggests an incidence of death due to FBAO of 0.66 per 100,000 population. An Australian study looking at incidence of foreign body asphyxia admission rate in the under-15s shows a rate of 15.1 per 100,000 per annum, peaking in those aged under one and then gradually declining to low levels by 3 years old.
In one Austrian autopsy series, certain risk factors were identified:
- Old age
- Poor dentition
- Alcohol consumption
- Chronic disease
- Eating risky foods
- A higher risk with soft/slick foods.
- Agomphiasis (absence of teeth).
- Neurological impairment.
Children, in particular mobile babies and toddlers who orally explore their environments, are at risk from FBAO. Carers need to maintain vigilance for objects such as coins, balloons, marbles. Risky foods in childhood tend to be round in shape and include sweets, nuts, grapes and improperly chewed other food.
Rapid evaluation is key: swiftly consider other conditions that may cause sudden respiratory distress, cyanosis or loss of consciousness, such as:
- Inhaled foreign body: after successful treatment for choking, foreign material may still be present in the upper or lower airways and cause complications such as bronchiectasis or lung abscess later. Anyone with a persistent cough, difficulty swallowing, or with the sensation of an object being still stuck in the throat should therefore be referred to A&E. CXR may show an opacity that requires removal at bronchoscopy or atelectasis. In children, clinical features and radiological findings may have a poor correlation with findings at bronchoscopy. If a foreign body is suspected, bronchoscopy should be performed at an early stage for best results.
- Iatrogenic: abdominal thrusts can cause serious injuries (eg gastric and splenic rupture) and all victims receiving abdominal thrusts require examination of the abdomen with a particular view to visceral injuries.
- Hypoxic brain injury and death.
Tragedy due to FBAO is unpredictable. In our risk-averse society, we can try to iron out some elements of increased risk, such as:
- Not eating whilst exercising.
- Remembering to chew food properly.
- Avoiding drunkenness.
- Cutting up grapes and not giving peanuts to small children.
We can also increase public awareness of choking and confidence at initiating first aid. The abdominal thrust manoeuvre used in the prehospital setting on adults has a good rate of success (86.5%). Given the speed with which individuals lose consciousness and die in a complete airway obstruction and the fact that survival often requires obstructions to have been cleared prior to the arrival of paramedics, these skills should be widely taught and practised.
Further reading & references
- Resuscitation Council (UK)
- First aid for choking: an illustrated guide; Babycentre UK
- BBC Health First aid home skills: choking; Interactive programme from the BBC but may need appropriate software. Flash plug-in can be downloaded from site.
- Adult Basic Life Support, Resuscitation Council UK Guideline (2010)
- Adult Choking Algorithm, Resuscitation Council UK (2010)
- Paediatric Basic Life Support, Resuscitation Council UK Guideline (2010)
- Mittleman RE, Wetli CV; The fatal cafe coronary. Foreign-body airway obstruction. JAMA. 1982 Mar 5;247(9):1285-8.
- Altmann AE, Ozanne-Smith J; Non-fatal asphyxiation and foreign body ingestion in children 0-14 years. Inj Prev. 1997 Sep;3(3):176-82.
- Berzlanovich AM, Muhm M, Sim E, et al; Foreign body asphyxiation--an autopsy study. Am J Med. 1999 Oct;107(4):351-5.
- Berzlanovich AM, Fazeny-Dorner B, Waldhoer T, et al; Foreign body asphyxia: a preventable cause of death in the elderly. Am J Prev Med. 2005 Jan;28(1):65-9.
- Mittleman RE; Fatal choking in infants and children. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 1984 Sep;5(3):201-10.
- Rimell FL, Thome A Jr, Stool S, et al; Characteristics of objects that cause choking in children. JAMA. 1995 Dec 13;274(22):1763-6.
- Harris CS, Baker SP, Smith GA, et al; Childhood asphyxiation by food. A national analysis and overview. JAMA. 1984 May 4;251(17):2231-5.
- Midulla F, Guidi R, Barbato A, et al; Foreign body aspiration in children. Pediatr Int. 2005 Dec;47(6):663-8.
- Swanson KL; Airway foreign bodies: what's new? Semin Respir Crit Care Med. 2004 Aug;25(4):405-11.
- Fearing NM, Harrison PB; Complications of the heimlich maneuver: case report and literature review. J Trauma. 2002 Nov;53(5):978-9.
- Soroudi A, Shipp HE, Stepanski BM, et al; Adult foreign body airway obstruction in the prehospital setting. Prehosp Emerg Care. 2007 Jan-Mar;11(1):25-9.
- Vilke GM, Smith AM, Ray LU, et al; Airway obstruction in children aged less than 5 years: the prehospital experience. Prehosp Emerg Care. 2004 Apr-Jun;8(2):196-9.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Gurvinder Rull
Dr Huw Thomas
Dr Hayley Willacy