What is Choking?

Choking A demonstration of abdominal thrusts on a person showing signs of choking Specialty Emergency medicine Choking (also known as foreign body airway obstruction) is a life-threatening medical emergency characterized by the blockage of air passage into the lungs secondary to the inhalation or ingestion of food or another object. Choking is caused by a mechanical obstruction of the airway that prevents normal breathing. This obstruction can be partial (allowing some air passage into the lungs) or complete (no air passage into the lungs).

Causes of Choking

Choking is caused when a piece of food or other object gets stuck in the upper airway. In the back of the mouth are two openings. One is the esophagus, which leads to the stomach; food goes down this pathway. The other is the trachea, which is the opening air must pass through to get to the lungs. When swallowing occurs, the trachea is covered by a flap called the epiglottis, which prevents food from entering the lungs. The trachea splits into the left and right main stem bronchae. These lead to the left and right lungs. They branch into increasingly smaller tubes as they spread throughout the lungs. Any object that ends up in the airway will become stuck as the airway narrows. Many large objects get stuck just inside the trachea at the vocal cords. In adults, choking most often occurs when food is not chewed properly. Talking or laughing while eating may cause a piece of food to "go down the wrong pipe." Normal swallowing mechanisms may be slowed if a person has been drinking alcohol or taking drugs, and if the person has certain illnesses such as Parkinson's disease. In older adults, risk factors for choking include advancing age, poor fitting dental work, and alcohol consumption. In children, choking is often caused by chewing food incompletely, attempting to eat large pieces of food or too much food at one time, or eating hard candy. Children also put small objects in their mouths, which may become lodged in their throat. Nuts, pins, marbles, or coins, for example, create a choking hazard.

How to prevent choking?

  • Don't give young children hard foods or small objects that are likely to become lodged in their airways. This includes nuts, seeds, gum, hard candy, peas, and tough meats. It is recommended that foods such as these not be given to any child younger than four years of age.
  • Cut foods such as hot dogs, sausages, and grapes into small pieces before serving them to young children.
  • Look over toys to find small pieces (eyes and noses on stuffed animals, for example) that the child might be tempted to place in his or her mouth.
  • Choking on a rubber balloon is the leading cause of choking death in children who choke on objects other than food. Clean up right after parties. Toddlers are prone to stick anything they find on the floor into their mouths, including dangerous objects.
  • Store small objects, such as buttons and batteries, out of a child's reach. Do not allow children to play sports with food or gum in their mouths.
  • Tell babysitters and older brothers and sisters what foods and objects should not be given to young children.
  • Instruct children to chew their food thoroughly before swallowing.


Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) consists of mouth-to-mouth respiration and chest compression. CPR allows oxygenated blood to circulate to vital organs such as the brain and heart Send someone to call 911. Do not leave the child alone to call 911 until you have given about 1-2 minute of CPR. Infants have a much better chance of survival if CPR is performed immediately.