When a child is choking, it means that an object — usually food or a toy — is lodged in the trachea (the airway) and is keeping air from flowing normally into or out of the lungs.
The trachea is usually protected by a small flap of cartilage called the epiglottis. The trachea and the esophagus 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.
Sometimes, though, 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:
- is unable to breathe
- is gasping or wheezing
- is unable to talk, cry, or make noise
- turns blue
- grabs at his or her throat or waves arms
- appears panicked
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
Remember that 911 should be called for any critical choking situation.
Here are several possible scenarios you might face and tips on how to handle them:
- If a child is choking and coughing but can breathe and talk, the airway is not completely blocked and it’s best to do nothing. The child will likely be fine after a good coughing spell. Don’t reach into the mouth to grab the object or even pat the child on the back. Either of these steps could push the object farther down the airway and make the situation worse. Stay with the child and remain calm until the episode passes.
- If a child is conscious but can’t breathe, talk, or make noise, or is turning blue, the situation calls for abdominal thrusts. Begin to relieve choking if you’ve been trained to do so. If you haven’t been trained, and no one else is available to perform it, call 911 for help.
- If the child was choking and is now unconscious and no longer breathing, call for help and then proceed immediately to CPR, if you’ve been trained in it. If you have not, call 911.
When to Call the Doctor or Go to the ER
You should take your child for emergency medical care after any major choking episode, especially if there is a persistent cough, drooling, gagging, wheezing, difficulty swallowing, or difficulty breathing.
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.
Unfortunately, all kids are at risk for choking, but those younger than 3 are especially vulnerable. Young children tend to put things in their mouths, and they also have smaller airways that are easily blocked. Also, they don’t have a lot of experience chewing and tend to swallow things whole.
You can help minimize the risks of choking. Foods that pose choking risks because they’re the same size and shape as a child’s airway include hot dogs, grapes, raw carrots, nuts, raisins, hard or gummy candy, spoonfuls of peanut butter, chunks of meat or cheese, and popcorn.
At mealtime, be sure to serve a child’s food in small, manageable bites. That means cutting whole grapes into quarters, cutting hot dogs lengthwise and into pieces (and remove the tough skin), and cooking vegetables rather than serving them raw. Teach kids to sit down for all meals and snacks and not to talk or laugh with food in their mouths.
Toys and household items also pose a choking hazard — beware of deflated balloons, coins, beads, small toy parts, and batteries. Before young kids become mobile, get down on the floor often to check for objects that they could put in their mouths and choke on. You’d be surprised by the things that routinely fall off counters or out of pockets and end up under furniture, behind curtains, etc.
Similarly, be sure to choose safe, age-appropriate toys. Always follow the manufacturer’s age recommendations — some toys have small parts that can cause choking, so carefully inspect a toy’s packaging.
And finally, 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.