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Choking & the Heimlich Maneuver

Apr 10, 2022

Choking is a life threatening situation that occurs whenever a foreign object lodges in the throat or windpipe. This can cause blockage to the oxygen flow to the brain. Choking a real medical emergency that requires fast and appropriate action by the closest available person. Choking can cause potential death if not acted upon immediately.

Causes of choking

While choking occurs most often among infants and children, choking among adults is not uncommon. [1] According to Injury Facts 2017, choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death. Of the 5,051 people who died from choking in 2015, 2,848 were older than 74.

These are the common reasons for choking:

When a foreign matter ends up in the trachea and becomes stuck as the airway narrows, choking occurs. Food or other foreign matter is supposed to go on another path when swallowed. As swallowing occurs, the epiglottis covers the trachea to prevent the swallowed object from entering the airway. However, when swallowing happens while talking or laughing, the object may go down the wrong pipe hence getting stuck in the airway.

Normal swallowing may be deterred by alcohol consumption or drug intake.

When food is not chewed properly or when swallowing too much food, large chunks of food may become lodged in the throat.

Certain illnesses may cause choking such as Parkinson’s disease may also cause some difficulty in swallowing and this can be a potential cause for choking.

Choking hazards for infants and toddlers

Infants and toddlers are still learning how to chew and swallow properly. This means that they are more prone to choking. Parents must supervise closely when an infant or toddler is eating. They also tend to put anything they touch in their mouth so they must be watched at all times. According to the CDC, the following food are potential hazards to infants and children[2]:

Choking symptoms

Most of the time, choking victims will have difficulty in speaking so it is important to know the symptoms of potential choking just in case one is around someone who might be a victim. The following are the known symptoms of choking:


It is difficult to know when choking will occur however, certain practices can be put in place to prevent this from happening.

The Heimlich Maneuver

Named after the American surgeon Henry Heimlich, the Heimlich maneuver is a well known emergency procedure that is recommended for someone who is choking. This can be learned even by a non-medical professional. Most of the time, choking needs immediate intervention and waiting for a medical professional for help may endanger the life of the victim. The Heimlich maneuver is a series of under-the-diaphragm abdominal thrusts. These thrusts are intended to lift the diaphragm, forcing air from the lungs to produce an artificial cough. The cough will force air through the trachea, pushing the object blocking the airway out to the mouth. Abdominal thrusts must be strong enough to force air from the lungs but not too strong as to damage any internal organs or the victim’s ribs.

Before performing the procedure, make sure to call emergency medical help if you are alone with the victim or have someone else call otherwise. To perform the Heimlich maneuver [3]:

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 This page is written by Lorraine Anne Liu, RN on Oct 7, 2020.

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