Thumbnail image of: Back Blows and Abdominal Thrusts for Choking: Illustration

Choking

What is choking?

Choking is being unable to breathe because something is blocking your upper airway (windpipe). Usually it’s food or vomit that gets stuck in your throat. The blockage makes it hard to breathe. It can be life threatening.

What is the cause?

Choking happens when something gets stuck in the airway. Chicken, fish bones, and pieces of meat that have not been chewed properly can easily get stuck in your throat. If you have been drinking alcohol, your risk of choking is greater because you may be careless about chewing food well or you may vomit.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Trouble talking or not being able to talk at all
  • High-pitched breathing, wheezing, or not breathing at all
  • Coughing or not being able to cough
  • A feeling of panic and clutching your throat or chest as a sign of distress
  • Turning blue
  • Fainting

How can I help someone who is choking?

If someone is choking but still able to breathe and cough and is not turning a bluish color, stay close by but do not interfere as they try to cough up the object. If they are having trouble breathing and turning blue, have someone call 911 while you do the following to help:

  1. Ask the person if they are choking. If they cannot answer you, or they grab their throat, they need help right away.
  2. Give 5 back blows.
    • Stand behind the person and wrap one arm around their chest.
    • Firmly strike the person on the back between the shoulder blades 5 times.
  3. If the back blows don’t cause the object to come out, give 5 abdominal thrusts.
    • Wrap both of your arms around the person’s abdomen (belly) at the waist.
    • Make a fist with one of your hands and place it with the thumb side against the center of the person’s abdomen.
    • Grasp your fist with your other hand and give 5 abdominal thrusts by making a quick, hard movement inward and upward 5 times.
  4. Repeat this series of 5 back blows and then 5 abdominal thrusts several times until the object comes out or the person faints.

If the choking person is pregnant or obese, use chest thrusts instead of abdominal thrusts after the back blows. To do chest thrusts:

  1. Stand behind the person and wrap your arms around their chest.
  2. Make a fist with one hand against the middle of the person’s breastbone, between the nipples, thumb side in.
  3. Grasp your fist with your other hand and pull straight inward 5 times (don’t pull upward as in the abdominal thrusts).
  4. Repeat the series of 5 back blows and 5 chest thrusts until the object comes out or the person faints.

If the person faints, lower the person to the floor, call for help, and start CPR if you have CPR training. When no one else is available, stop to call for emergency help (EMS or 911), and then go back to rescue efforts. If you see something blocking the airway, try to remove it by using 1 finger to sweep the mouth.

If the blockage comes out, and the person is still not breathing, start CPR while someone calls 911.

If the airway cannot be cleared and the windpipe is completely blocked, the person may need an emergency opening in their airway by an emergency medical technician or healthcare provider.

How can I help prevent choking?

Take these steps to prevent choking:

  • Cut food into small pieces. Don’t try to swallow large pieces of food.
  • Eat slowly and chew foods well, especially when you are drinking alcohol.
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol before or during meals. Alcohol dulls your judgment as well as the nerves that help you swallow.
  • Don’t eat when you are talking, laughing, walking, running, or playing. This lowers the chance that you will inhale a piece of food that can get stuck in your airway.
  • Make sure dentures fit properly. Loose-fitting dentures may make it hard to chew and to feel objects in your mouth.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-30
Last reviewed: 2014-10-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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