There is a high probability that at some point in your life you will witness someone choking: Choking is the fourth leading cause of accidental injury, according to the National Safety Council.
You have been warned about the risk of choking since you were young, but would you really know what to do if someone around you choke? If not, you have to learn, experts say. “If you choke, the airway becomes obstructed, and failure to act unfortunately leads to the eventual suffocation and suffocation,” says Dr. Eric Adkins, emergency medicine physician at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Yahoo Life.
It’s also important to act quickly, says Yahoo Life Dr. Danle Fisher, president of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Sometimes you have minutes, even seconds, to restore the airway before permanent damage occurs,” he says. “It’s a terrifying situation that requires an immediate response.”
Many organizations, including the Red Cross, offer courses on what to do when someone suffocates. But if you don’t have time for a course, or you just know you will never make it, it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of what to do in an emergency. Here’s what the experts recommend.
First, who is most likely to choke?
“Choking can happen to anyone,” said Dr. Zeeshan Khan, associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, but added that children under the age of 5 and older adults are at greatest risk.
Children under 4, in particular, are more prone to choking, “because their airways are smaller at first and are not used to handling foods of varying consistency,” says Fisher. They, too, “are impulsive about what they put in their mouths,” she adds.
In the elderly, “swallowing function may change, making people more prone to choking,” says Adkins.
Common causes of choking
Choking can happen in many situations, but experts say food, coins, toys, and balloons are the main causes in children.
In adults, “the most common causes of choking are almost always food,” says Khan. He adds, however, that “elderly people may have difficulty chewing and swallowing, which can lead to choking.”
What to do when a child is choking
If anyone else is there, Fisher recommends asking them to call 911 while taking action. And if you are alone, try removing the food first. “Your first try will save your life more than your first call to 911,” he says.
If your child is less than 1 year old, you’ll want to keep them face down and strike them backwards, says Fisher. “That means grabbing the heel of the hand and aiming between the shoulder blades,” he says. This creates strong vibrations and pressure in the airways that can usually displace an object, he says.
The British Red Cross strongly recommends that you take up to five blows to the back, keeping the baby face down along the thigh, head lower than the buttock, and supporting the head. If blows to the back don’t help, turn the baby upside down, place two fingers in the center of the chest just below the nipples, and push down firmly up to five times. According to the British Red Cross, this squeezes the air out of the baby’s lungs and can help clear the blockage.
What to do when a child is suffocating
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the use of the Heimlich maneuver on children who are choking. Again, have someone call 911 if available while taking action. You can do this while your baby is lying, sitting, or standing.
If they are sitting or standing, stand behind them and wrap your arms around their waist, says AAP. Place the thumb of your fist in the center of your abdomen, grasp that fist with your free hand and press inward with quick upward strokes. Repeat these strokes until the subject coughs or the child breathes or coughs.
If your baby is unconscious, you’ll want to do something called a tongue and jaw lift. To do this, the AAP tells you to open your mouth with your thumb held over your tongue and your fingers wrapped around your lower jaw (this pulls your tongue away from the back of your throat). This way, you may be able to clear the airways. If you can see what’s causing the blockage, try to remove it by swiping to the side – just be careful as this can push the item down even more.
If the baby hasn’t started breathing again, gently tilt the head back and raise the chin, says AAP. Then cover your mouth with your own, pinch your nose, and give two breaths of one and a half to two seconds. Then go back to the Heimlich maneuver. Repeat the steps until the baby starts to breathe again or help arrives.
What to do when an adult suffocates
It’s important for adults to ask if they’re choking first, says Adkins. If they say yes, you will take steps similar to those you would do for a child, according to the American Red Cross. Give them five backwards punches, then five stabs to the stomach if the punches did not remove the item.
Repeat this cycle or call 911 if you are unable to remove the object.
After your choking episode has subsided, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, says Khan. “There can be complications with this episode,” she says.
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