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HealthSheets™

When a Teen or Adult Is Choking 

Choking happens when a foreign object becomes stuck in your throat or windpipe, blocking the flow of air. This may be caused by a piece of food or a large pill. A complete blockage of your throat or windpipe stops air from going to your lungs. If this lasts long enough, the oxygen level in your blood goes down and causes you to lose consciousness.

Prevention

To prevent choking, do the following:

  • Cut food into small pieces.

  • Chew food slowly and thoroughly, especially if wearing dentures.

  • Don't laugh or talk while chewing or swallowing.

  • Don't drink a lot of alcohol before and during meals.

  • If you have difficulty swallowing large pills, it may be possible to crush them, or to get the liquid form if available. But some pills should not be crushed. Ask your pharmacist before crushing any of your medicines. You could also ask your healthcare provider to prescribe another type of medicine in a smaller size.

What to do

If you have a blockage that’s stopping air flow, you naturally want to grab your throat with both hands. That is the universal sign for choking. If someone appears to be choking and doesn't give this signal, look for these signs:

  • Can't speak

  • Difficulty breathing or noisy breathing

  • Can't cough forcefully

  • Skin, lips, and nails turning blue or dusky

  • Loss of consciousness

If you see any of the above signs, call 911 right away and take first aid measures if you are trained to do them. If you or your family doesn’t know how to give first aid for choking, call your local health department or community center for class information. It could be life-saving.

At the first sign of choking

If you are alone

Woman bending over the back of a chair to perform choking self-rescue.
If you are alone and choking, perform thrusts on yourself, or thrust your abdomen against a chair back, sink edge, or railing.

If a victim is choking

Step 1. Identify choking

  • Ask the victim if he or she is choking. If the person cannot speak, say that you will help.

  • Don't slap the victim on the back. This may force the object lower into the airway.

Look for a hand raised to the throat, an instinctive response to choking.

Woman holding hands to throat, looking distressed.

Man standing behind woman with arms around her waist. Inset shows his fist next to her upper abdomen and his other hand flattened and ready to cover his fist.

Man standing behind woman with arms around her waist and fist at her upper abdomen, with other hand flat on fist. Arrow shows him pressing in and up with his fist. Blockage is being expelled from woman's mouth.

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Step 2. Grasp from behind

  • Move behind the victim. Slide your palms under his or her arms, bringing your hands together in front of the victim's body.

  • Make a fist with one hand, placing the flat surface of the thumb and first finger above the belt line.

  • Note: If pregnancy or extreme overweight makes this impossible, give thrusts inward against the middle of the victim's breastbone.

Step 3. Thrust in and up

  • Cover your fist with the other hand, keeping your elbows away from your body.

  • Pull in and up quickly, using hard thrusts to force air from the victim's lungs. This pops out the blockage.

  • Repeat thrusts until the victim coughs or speaks.

 

When to call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • A choking spell that doesn't end right away

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Shortness of breath or noisy breathing

  • Skin, lips, and nails turning blue or dusky

  • Can't speak

  • Can't cough forcefully

For more information

The following organizations have information on first-aid classes near you:

© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.