|SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center|
When a child is choking, it means that an object — usually food or a toy — is lodged in the (the airway) and is keeping air from flowing normally into or out of the lungs, so the child isn't able to breathe properly.
The trachea is usually protected by a small flap of cartilage called the . The trachea and the share an opening at the back of the throat, and the epiglottis acts like a lid, snapping shut over the trachea each time a person swallows. It allows food to pass down the esophagus and prevents it from going down the trachea.
But every once in a while, the epiglottis doesn't close fast enough and an object can slip into the trachea. This is what happens when something goes "down the wrong pipe."
Most of the time, the food or object only partially blocks the trachea and it's likely that it will be coughed up and that breathing will be restored easily. A child who seems to be choking and coughing but is still able to breathe and talk probably will recover unassisted. It can be uncomfortable and upsetting, but the child is generally fine after a few seconds.
Choking Can Be an Emergency
Sometimes, an object can get into the trachea and completely block the airway. If airflow into and out of the lungs is blocked, and the brain is deprived of oxygen, choking can become a life-threatening emergency.
A child may be choking and need help right away if he or she:
In those cases, immediately start abdominal thrusts (also known as the Heimlich maneuver), the standard rescue procedure for choking, if you've been trained to do it properly.
Abdominal Thrusts (The Heimlich Maneuver)
If you have kids, it's important to get trained in both cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the technique of abdominal thrusts. Even if you don't have kids, knowing how to perform these first-aid procedures will let you help if you're ever in a situation where someone is choking.
The idea of the abdominal thrusts is that a sudden burst of air forced upward through the trachea from the diaphragm will dislodge a foreign object and send it flying up into (or even out of) the mouth.
Though the technique of abdominal thrusts is pretty simple, it must be performed with caution, especially on young children. It's safest when done by someone trained to perform it. If it's done the wrong way, the choking person — especially a baby or child — could be hurt. There's a special version of abdominal thrusts just for infants that is designed to lower the risk of injury to their small bodies.
The technique of abdominal thrusts and CPR are usually taught as part of basic first-aid courses, which are offered by YMCAs, hospitals, and local chapters of the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Red Cross.
What to Do
Call 911 for any critical choking situation.
Here are several possible scenarios you might face and tips on how to handle them:
When to Call the Doctor or Go to the ER
Take your child for emergency medical care after any major choking episode.
Also seek emergency medical care for a child if:
If your child had an episode that seemed like choking but fully recovered after a coughing spell, there is no need to seek immediate medical care but you should call your doctor.
All kids are at risk for choking, but those younger than 3 are especially vulnerable. Young children tend to put things in their mouths, have smaller airways that are easily blocked, and don't have a lot of experience chewing and often swallow things whole.
You can help minimize the risks of choking:
Take the time now to become prepared. CPR and first-aid courses are a must for parents, other caregivers, and babysitters. To find one in your area, contact your local American Red Cross, YMCA, or American Heart Association chapter, or check with hospitals and health departments in your community.
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD