July 01, 2019

First aid for choking

Quick action to save a life

Choking is frightening. Most of the time coughing is enough to dislodge or expel the object blocking the throat (larynx) or windpipe (trachea) and restore full airflow to the lungs. However, choking can quickly become an emergency situation if the airway isn't cleared and normal breathing restored.

It's not always obvious when someone is choking, particularly with older adults. One clue to choking in an adult is that it typically occurs while eating. Choking commonly occurs when eating a piece of meat, but older adults appear more susceptible to choking on softer foods, such as a bite of a sandwich, a meatball, fruit, vegetables or noodles.

In many cases, a morsel of food may "go down the wrong pipe" and the coughing reflex may take care of the problem. Still, keep an eye on the person, particularly if he or she moves to a more private location. Ask, "Are you choking?" If the person can talk, cough freely and has normal skin color, he or she isn't choking.

Panic is often the first response of someone who is choking. When you ask about choking, the person may nod without speaking or try to communicate with hand motions. Additional indications of choking include difficulty breathing or wheeziness, gasping or gurgling while breathing, the inability to cough forcefully or a silent cough, loss of consciousness, or blue or dusky skin, lips and nails.

If you're the one choking and there are bystanders, make the universal signal for choking by clutching your hands to your throat.