When a child is choking, it means that an object — usually food or a toy — is stuck in the trachea (the airway), keeping air from flowing normally into or out of the lungs, so the child can't breathe properly.
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, is coughed up, and breathing returns to normal quickly. Kids who seem to be choking and coughing but still can breathe and talk usually recover without help. It can be uncomfortable and upsetting for them, but they're generally fine after a few seconds.
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 so.
If you have kids, it's important to get trained in both cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the technique of abdominal thrusts (the Heimlich maneuver). 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 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 is pretty simple, abdominal thrusts must be done with caution, especially on young children. They are safest when done by someone trained to do them. If 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.
Call 911 for any critical choking situation.
Here are several possible situations you might face and tips on how to handle them:
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 so 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: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014
|National Safety Council The National Safety Council offers information on first aid, CPR, environmental health, and safety.|
|U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) This federal agency collects information about consumer goods and issues recalls on unsafe or dangerous products.|
|American Red Cross The American Red Cross helps prepare communities for emergencies and works to keep people safe every day. The website has information on first aid, safety, and more.|
|American Heart Association This group is dedicated to providing education and information on fighting heart disease and stroke. Contact the American Heart Association at: American Heart Association|
7272 Greenville Ave.
Dallas, TX 75231
|When It's Just You in an Emergency In a medical emergency, kids can be heroes just by calling for help. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Choking Have you ever gotten a piece of food stuck in your throat or swallowed your drink "down the wrong pipe"? Find out more about choking and how to prevent it.|
|First Aid: Choking Choking can be a life-threatening emergency. Follow these steps if your child is choking.|
|CPR Every parent should know how and when to administer CPR. Done correctly, CPR can save a child's life by restoring breathing and circulation until medical personnel arrive.|
|CPR: A Real Lifesaver CPR saves lives. Find out how it works.|
|Babysitting: Pool Safety Pools give kids an opportunity to play outside and get some exercise. But there are dangers involved whenever kids are around water, so babysitters need to be extra alert and watchful. Learn what to look out for.|
|Household Safety: Preventing Choking Choking is usually caused by food, toys, and other small objects that can easily lodge in a child's small airway - anything that fits can be a danger. Read about how to protect kids from choking hazards.|
|What You Need to Know in an Emergency In an emergency, it's hard to think clearly about your kids' health information. Here's what important medical information you should have handy, just in case.|
|Knowing Your Child's Medical History In an emergency, health care professionals will have many questions about a patient's medical history. It's easy to compile this information now, and it could save critical minutes later.|
|First-Aid Kit A well-stocked first-aid kit, kept in easy reach, is a necessity in every home. Learn where you should keep a kit and what to put in it.|
|Choosing Safe Toys Toys are a fun and important part of any child's development. And there's plenty you can do to make sure all toys are safe.|
|Choosing Safe Toys for Toddlers and Preschoolers How can you tell if a small toy poses a choking risk? What types of unsafe toys should you avoid for your baby, toddler, or preschooler? Find out here.|
|Emergency Contact Sheet The best time to prepare for an emergency is before it happens. Fill out this sheet, and post it near each phone.|
|911 Emergencies No one likes to think that something might happen to someone we care about. But whether we like it or not, emergencies do happen, and they require us to think and respond quickly.|
|Babysitting: Dealing With Choking What should you do if a child you're babysitting is choking? Our tip sheet can help you be prepared.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.