First Aid for Choking: What to Do

Accidents can happen unexpectedly, and one of the most alarming situations you may encounter is witnessing someone choking. Knowing how to respond effectively during these critical moments can be the difference between life and death.

What are the best first aid practices for choking?

Short Answer: The best first aid practices for choking involve quick and effective responses to clear the airway and restore normal breathing.

  • Perform the Heimlich maneuver by standing behind a choking person, wrapping arms around their waist, and making a fist above and below the ribcage. Grab the fist and thrust inward and upward to expel the obstruction.
  • Encourage conscious coughing to dislodge objects, but if coughing becomes ineffective, use Heimlich maneuver.
  • Avoid abdominal thrusts on infants under one year old. Instead, use modified CPR, back blows, and chest thrusts until help arrives.
  • Call emergency services if a person is choking and unable to breathe, and evaluate them to prevent complications.

Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Choking

Choking is a medical emergency involving an object lodged in the throat or windpipe, blocking the airway and impeding air flow to the lungs.

Understanding the causes and symptoms of choking can help us identify the risk factors and take preventive measures.

Causes of Choking:

  • Eating Too Quickly: Eating or drinking too quickly without properly chewing the food can increase the risk of choking, especially in young children and the elderly.
  • Eating Large Pieces of Food: Swallowing large chunks of food, particularly hard or poorly cut pieces, can become stuck in the throat.
  • Foreign Objects: In children, choking often occurs when they put small objects, like toys or coins, in their mouths.
  • Dentures: Ill-fitting dentures can interfere with swallowing and increase the likelihood of choking.
  • Alcohol or Drug Intoxication: Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol or using drugs can impair coordination and lead to choking incidents.
  • Medical Conditions: Medical conditions like stroke, neurological disorders, and muscular dystrophy increase choking risk in the muscles involved in swallowing.

Symptoms of Choking:

  • Difficulty Breathing: The person may struggle to breathe or make gasping sounds, indicating an obstruction in the airway.
  • Coughing or Gagging: Initially, choking victims may attempt to cough forcefully in an effort to dislodge the object.
  • Inability to Speak: As the airway becomes increasingly blocked, the person may not be able to produce sound or speak.
  • Clutching the Throat: The universal choking sign is when the person instinctively grabs their throat with one or both hands.
  • Cyanosis: In severe cases, the skin may turn blue or dusky due to a lack of oxygen.
  • Loss of Consciousness: If the airway remains blocked and oxygen supply is restricted, the person may lose consciousness.

How to Administer First Aid for Choking in Emergency Situations

Administering first aid for choking in emergency situations requires quick and decisive action to clear the airway and restore normal breathing.

The steps to provide first aid for choking differ depending on whether the person choking is conscious or unconscious.

For a Conscious Choking Adult or Child (Over 1 Year Old):

Encourage Coughing:

First, encourage the person to cough to try and dislodge the object on their own. Coughing is the body's natural way of clearing the airway.

Perform Abdominal Thrusts (Heimlich Maneuver):

Stand behind someone struggling with coughing or breathing, wrap arms around their waist, grasp a fist above their navel, and perform thrusts until the obstruction is dislodged. Continue until medical help arrives.

Call for Emergency Help:

If the person is still choking after attempting abdominal thrusts, or if you are alone, call for emergency medical assistance immediately.

For an Unconscious Choking Adult or Child (Over 1 Year Old):

Call for Emergency Help:

If you find an unconscious person, shout for help and call emergency services immediately.

Begin CPR:

Before CPR, remove visible objects from the person's mouth and follow appropriate guidelines for adults or children. After 30 chest compressions, give two rescue breaths and continue until the object is dislodged or professional medical help arrives.

Special Considerations for Choking in Infants (Under 1 Year Old):

Check for Responsiveness:

Gently tap the infant and check if they respond or make any sounds. If they are conscious and coughing effectively, let them try to clear the airway on their own.

Perform Back Blows and Chest Thrusts:

In case of an infant choking and unable to cough, place them face down on your forearm, support their head, and give five back blows between shoulder blades. If the object remains unexpelled, turn the infant face-up and perform five chest thrusts.

Call for Emergency Help:

If the choking persists, call for emergency medical assistance.


When to Seek Medical Attention for Choking

Seeking medical attention for choking is essential in certain situations, as some choking incidents can be severe and require immediate professional intervention. Here are such circumstances:

Choking Persists:

Call emergency medical assistance if a person continues to choke and cannot clear the airway, as persistent choking can be life-threatening.

Loss of Consciousness:

If the person choking becomes unconscious, it is crucial to call for emergency help and begin CPR immediately. Unconsciousness indicates that the airway is completely blocked.

Ineffective First Aid:

If first aid measures like Heimlich maneuver, back blows, and chest thrusts haven't worked, seek professional medical assistance if they're unsuccessful in dislodging the object.

Improper Relief:

Bystanders or untrained individuals may attempt to assist a choking victim, potentially using incorrect techniques. It's crucial to call emergency medical help promptly.

Choking in High-Risk Individuals:

Choking can cause complications for elderly, infants, or those with pre-existing medical conditions. It's best to seek medical attention, even if the choking episode seems mild, to avoid complications.

Persistent Cough or Wheezing:

Persistent coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing should be sought medically if the obstruction has cleared and the individual can breathe again. Residual airway irritation or inflammation may require evaluation and treatment.

Ingestion of Harmful Substances:

Medical attention is crucial for assessing and managing potential internal injuries or toxicity in choking incidents involving harmful substances or sharp objects.

Recurrent Choking Episodes:

Recurrent choking episodes require healthcare consultation to identify underlying cause, receive appropriate management, and receive preventive measures.

Tips for Preventing Choking and Supporting Recovery from Choking Incidents

Preventing choking incidents and supporting recovery are essential aspects of ensuring the safety and well-being of individuals. Here are some valuable tips:

Preventing Choking:

Chew Food Thoroughly:

Encourage everyone, especially young children and the elderly, to chew food slowly and thoroughly before swallowing. Avoid rushing meals or talking while eating.

Cut Food into Small Pieces:

Cut food, particularly meat, fruits, and vegetables, into small, manageable pieces to reduce the risk of choking.

Be Cautious with Small Objects:

Keep small objects like coins, buttons, marbles, and toys with small parts out of the reach of young children. Be mindful of small objects that could be choking hazards.

Supervise Meals:

Supervise meals, especially for young children, to ensure they are eating safely and not putting too much food in their mouths at once.

Avoid Nuts and Hard Candy for Young Children:

Nuts and hard candies can be difficult for young children to chew and may present choking hazards. Opt for age-appropriate snacks instead.

Check for Proper Denture Fit:

If you or someone you know wears dentures, ensure they fit properly to avoid any swallowing difficulties.

Avoid Alcohol and Drugs Before Meals:

Consuming alcohol or using drugs can impair coordination and increase the risk of choking, so it's best to avoid them before or during meals.

Stay Informed:

Learn about common choking hazards and first aid procedures for choking. Taking a first aid training course can be incredibly beneficial.

Supporting Recovery from Choking Incidents:

Stay Calm:

In the event of a choking incident, stay calm and take quick action to assist the person.

Encourage Coughing:

If the person is conscious and coughing, encourage them to continue coughing to try and dislodge the object.

Perform Abdominal Thrusts (Heimlich Maneuver):

If the person is unable to cough or breathe, perform abdominal thrusts for conscious adults and children (over 1 year old) to clear the airway.

Call for Emergency Help:

If the choking persists, the person becomes unconscious, or you are uncertain about performing first aid, call emergency services immediately.

Perform CPR:

If the person becomes unconscious, start CPR following appropriate guidelines for adults or children (over 1 year old). If it's an infant (under 1 year old), follow the specific procedures for infants.

Follow Medical Advice:

After a choking incident, seek medical attention to ensure there are no underlying injuries or complications. Follow the advice and recommendations provided by medical professionals.

Provide Emotional Support:

Choking incidents can be traumatic for both the affected individual and witnesses. Offer emotional support and reassurance to help them cope with the experience.

Prevent Future Episodes:

Address any underlying causes of the choking incident, if applicable, and take measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Click here for a brief explanation of the role of first aid.

To get to know the principles of first aid for beginners click here.


Related Questions

How can I recognize if someone is choking?

Recognizing the signs of choking is vital for providing timely assistance.Common signs include throat clutching, difficulty breathing, distress, and gasping sounds. If conscious and coughing forcefully, the individual may be clearing the airway on their own.

Can I perform the Heimlich maneuver on myself if I am choking?

Yes, the Heimlich maneuver can be performed on oneself when choking. Form a fist above the navel, grasp the fist, and thrust inward and upward to expel the object blocking the airway. Alternatively, use the back of a chair or a countertop edge for abdominal thrusts. If choking persists and cannot be dislodged, seek medical assistance immediately.


Remember, choking can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. By familiarizing yourself with the first aid measures outlined in this article, you can become an empowered and well-prepared responder, ready to lend crucial aid when it matters most.


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