Choking: A Medical Emergency

Choking is defined as the inability to breathe because the trachea is blocked, constricted, or swollen shut. When a person is choking air is not reaching the lungs.

Choking is a Medical Emergency

If the airway cannot be cleared, the person choking will soon die.


According to the National Safety Council, around 4,800 people die each year from choking. Choking is the 4th leading cause of death and over half of these deaths were people over 75 years of age. The most common culprit in choking incidents is food. People are especially susceptible if they live alone, have dentures, or have a condition which makes swallowing difficult. Certain foods such as steak are harder to chew and can pose a choking hazard. Drinking alcohol, laughing and talking can all raise your choking risk. When you are socializing, you could laugh while you have a mouth full of food and inhale food, lodging it in your trachea. It’s important to be aware and vigilant about your eating habits to reduce your risk of choking. Choking is also a leading cause of death in infants and young children because they are likely to put small objects in their mouths and then accidentally inhale them. Children first learning to eat food are also at risk to choke. Make sure to cut any food into small pieces, limit quantity they have at one time, and supervise while the child is eating.

Common signs someone is choking:

  • The person is grabbing or clutching at their throat.
  • The person cannot speak or make a sound.
  • The person’s face or lips are turning first red and then blue from lack of oxygen.
  • The person is emitting a high pitched wheezing, gagging, or weak cough.
  • The person showed one of these symptoms listed above and then passed out.

If you see someone clutching their throat, coughing, gagging, wheezing or passed out, will you know what to do?

Here are tips to remember if you need to aid someone who is choking.

  • If a person is coughing forcefully, encourage continued coughing to clear the object blocking their trachea.
  • If a person can’t talk, cough, or breathe, they need immediate assistance. Inform them you are going to help them and then perform the Heimlich maneuver. This should never be done for infants younger than 1 year old.
  • If the victim is or becomes unresponsive, lower the person to the ground and start CPR. Make sure to look inside their mouth and remove any objects.
  • If the person choking is an infant, make sure to follow proper procedure to try and remove the object from their trachea. You should only perform this procedure if the infant cannot cry, cough, or breathe.
    • Support the infant face down by holding the head in one hand with the torso on your forearm against your thigh.
    • Give five back slaps between the shoulder blades with the heel of your hand that is not supporting the infant’s head.
    • If the object is not expelled, roll the infant face up, making sure to support the back of the infant’s head with your hand.
    • Place two fingers on the breastbone just below the nipple line.
    • Give five chest compressions about one per second about 1 ½ inches deep.
    • Continue cycles of five back slaps and five chest compressions until the object is expelled or the infant becomes unresponsive.
    • If the infant becomes unresponsive, administer CPR make sure to look inside their mouth and remove any objects.

      If you are choking and no one else is around.

  • the first thing to do is call for help. 9-1-1 operators are trained to ask yes and no questions using beeps from the keys on your phone to determine your answer. Don’t forget to unlock your front door so that the rescue workers can come in. Once help is on the way, bend your belly over a firm object like the edge of a chair, table, or kitchen counter. Line your belly button up with the object and thrust your belly onto the object like a belly flop. This will help dislodge the object blocking your trachea.

Your training has prepared you to help a person who is choking and can’t breathe. The reminders and tips we have shared with you are designed to help you remember what to do in case of an emergency.