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What to Do If Someone Is Choking: Immediate Actions and Tips

Choking is a common but potentially life-threatening situation that can happen to anyone, regardless of age. It occurs when an object, typically a piece of food, becomes lodged in a person’s throat or windpipe, blocking the flow of air. Knowing how to respond quickly and effectively to a choking emergency can save lives, as well as prevent injuries and further complications.

The first step in assisting a choking victim is to determine if he or she can talk, cough, or make any noises indicating air passage. If the person can perform these actions, it’s best to let them clear their airway on their own. Intervention at this point might cause the object to lodge even more deeply. However, if the individual cannot speak or is struggling to breathe, immediate action is necessary. Performing the Heimlich maneuver or abdominal thrusts on the choking victim can help dislodge the obstructing object and restore air flow.

In addition to learning how to perform first aid for choking, it’s also essential to be aware of preventative measures. Cutting food into small pieces, chewing slowly and thoroughly, and avoiding talking and laughing while eating can help reduce the risk of choking in adults. For children, keeping small objects out of reach and supervising them during mealtimes can play a vital role in preventing choking incidents.

First aid procedure

Recognizing Choking Signs

Mild Choking

When a person is experiencing mild choking, they might still be able to breathe, speak, or cough to some extent. Some common signs of mild choking include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Watery eyes
  • Red or flushed facial complexion
  • Extreme distress and anxiety

Even though the person might be partially able to breathe, it’s important to monitor their condition and be prepared to assist if the situation worsens.

Severe Choking

In cases of severe choking, the person’s airway is completely obstructed, which can quickly become a life-threatening situation. Signs of severe choking include:

  • Inability to breathe, speak, cough or cry
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bluish tint to the lips, skin, or nails from a lack of oxygen
  • Clutching at the throat

If a person is conscious and showing these signs, immediate action should be taken to try and clear their airway. For an unconscious individual experiencing severe choking, chest compressions and appropriate first aid procedures should be initiated promptly.

Causes of Choking

Choking occurs when an object lodges in the throat or windpipe, blocking the flow of air. This can happen due to various reasons and can involve different objects, including food items and small objects that can accidentally be swallowed.

Food Items

Certain food items, especially when not properly chewed, pose a choking hazard. Some common food items that can cause choking include:

  • Hot dogs: Their size and shape can easily block the throat if not cut into smaller pieces.
  • Grapes: Whole grapes can be a choking hazard due to their size and slippery texture.
  • Nuts: Larger nuts, like walnuts or almonds, can get stuck in the throat, especially if not chewed properly.
  • Popcorn: Unpopped kernels are hard and can obstruct the airway.
  • Raw carrots: Hard and crunchy, raw carrots can cause choking if not cut into smaller pieces or chewed thoroughly.
  • Peanut butter: A large spoonful of peanut butter can be difficult to swallow and can cause choking.

Small Objects

Young children, in particular, are prone to choking on small objects they may find and try to swallow. Some common small objects that pose a choking hazard include:

  • Coins: Children may accidentally swallow coins found on the ground.
  • Latex balloons: Deflated or broken balloons can easily be swallowed and block the airway.
  • Marbles: Their small size and smooth surface make marbles a choking risk.
  • Small toys: Tiny toy parts or toys meant for older children can pose a choking hazard if swallowed by a younger child.

To help prevent choking, it’s essential to supervise young children while they’re eating, ensure that food is cut into appropriate bite-sized pieces, and keep small objects out of reach. Additionally, promoting safe eating habits, such as chewing food thoroughly and eating slowly, can help reduce the risk of choking for people of all ages.

Choking First Aid

Choking occurs when an object lodges in the throat or windpipe, blocking the flow of air. In adults, a piece of food is often the cause. Prompt first aid can save a life in such situations. This section covers several first aid techniques that can be used: Abdominal Thrusts, Back Blows, Chest Compressions, and CPR.

Abdominal Thrusts

Also known as the Heimlich maneuver, abdominal thrusts can help dislodge the object causing the airway obstruction. To perform abdominal thrusts:

  1. Stand behind the person who is choking.
  2. Place a fist slightly above their navel.
  3. Grasp your fist with the other hand.
  4. Give quick, inward, and upward thrusts until the object is dislodged.

If the individual is choking while alone, they can perform abdominal thrusts on themselves by placing their fist above their navel, grasping it with their other hand, and bending over a hard surface to make inward and upward thrusts.

Back Blows

Back blows can be effective in removing the object blocking the airway. To perform back blows:

  1. Stand slightly behind the person who is choking.
  2. Support their upper body, ensuring it is parallel with the ground.
  3. Deliver up to 5 back blows using the heel of one hand between their shoulder blades.

Chest Compressions

If back blows and abdominal thrusts are unsuccessful, chest compressions can be attempted. To perform chest compressions:

  1. Stand beside the choking person.
  2. Place the heel of one hand in the center of the chest.
  3. Place your other hand on top and interlock the fingers.
  4. Press down firmly and quickly, delivering up to 5 chest compressions.


If the person becomes unconscious and is not breathing, CPR should be initiated immediately. To perform CPR:

  1. Call emergency services.
  2. Place the choking person on a flat surface.
  3. Begin chest compressions at a rate of 100-120 compressions per minute.
  4. After 30 compressions, tilt the person’s head back and lift their chin to open the airway.
  5. Give 2 rescue breaths.
  6. Continue alternating between 30 compressions and 2 breaths until help arrives.

These first aid techniques, used in a timely and appropriate manner, can save the life of someone who is choking. It is essential to remain confident, clear-headed, and focused while providing first aid.

Special Populations


When helping a choking child, it’s important to first encourage them to cough, as it may help dislodge the object. If coughing is not effective, call 911 and begin administering back blows. To do this, position the child with their head lower than their chest and deliver five firm blows between their shoulder blades using the heel of your hand. If back blows are not successful, move on to abdominal thrusts. Perform up to five abdominal thrusts by placing a clenched fist above the child’s belly button and applying quick, inward and upward pressure with your other hand.

Pregnant Women

Choking pregnant women require modified first aid techniques due to the potential harm caused by abdominal thrusts. Instead of performing abdominal thrusts, use chest thrusts by placing your hands slightly lower than the woman’s armpits on the middle of her chest, then apply quick and firm inward pressure. Repeat chest thrusts up to five times, interspersed with five back blows if needed.


For choking obese individuals, abdominal thrusts may be difficult to perform effectively. In such cases, chest thrusts can be a suitable alternative. Position your hands in the center of the person’s chest and apply sharp, inward pressure. As with other methods, alternate five chest thrusts with five back blows until the object is dislodged or help arrives.


The elderly may be more prone to choking due to factors like reduced muscle strength and coordination. In these cases, it is essential to call for help immediately and carefully administer first aid. Begin with abdominal thrusts (or chest thrusts for obese individuals) and back blows, taking care not to apply excessive force, as this can result in injury. Communicate your actions clearly and ensure the person remains as calm as possible throughout the process.

Preventing Choking

Preventing choking primarily involves taking precautionary measures, both for adults and children. Some of these measures include cutting food into small pieces and thoroughly chewing. It is important to avoid laughing and talking while chewing and swallowing, and limiting alcohol consumption during meals for adults.

When it comes to children, parents should ensure their child’s play area is free of small objects like coins, erasers, and building blocks. Additionally, children’s food should be chopped into small pieces to make it easier for them to swallow.

In terms of non-food-related choking, keeping small objects out of reach and purchasing age-appropriate toys can significantly reduce the risk. It is also advisable not to allow children to run and play while eating food or candy. Some further prevention tips are:

  • Eating food only at the table
  • Cooking vegetables until they are soft

In case of a choking incident, it’s essential to be aware of choking first aid procedures. Both the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association provide resources and training courses on what to do if someone is choking. One commonly known technique is the Heimlich maneuver which involves standing behind the choking person, placing your arms around their waist, and performing a series of inward and upward thrusts to dislodge the object blocking their airway.

Healthcare providers, including doctors, nurses, and other professionals, can also offer guidance on choking prevention and provide education on first aid techniques. By taking these preventive measures and being knowledgeable about choking first aid, people can help reduce the risks associated with choking incidents.

Additional Risks and Complications

Choking poses several risks and complications, some of which can be life-threatening. When a person’s airway is obstructed, the supply of oxygen to their brain and other organs is restricted. This can lead to serious complications or even death if not promptly addressed.

Injuries can occur during an episode of choking when attempts are made to dislodge the obstructing object by either the choking individual or someone providing assistance. Some of the possible injuries resulting from forceful actions include:

  • Throat irritation or damage, leading to pain, difficulty swallowing, or compromised airways
  • Rupture of internal organs if excessive force is applied during abdominal thrusts
  • Rib fractures caused by vigorous back blows or abdominal thrusts performed incorrectly
  • Infections due to wounds resulting from sharp objects lodged in the throat or punctured airways

In addition to physical complications, psychological impacts may arise from a choking incident. These can manifest as anxiety, fear, or even post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly when the experience was particularly distressing or life-threatening.

Older people are particularly susceptible to choking and its complications. The elderly may have weakened throat muscles, missing or damaged teeth, and reduced swallowing reflexes, leading to a higher risk of choking on food.

To minimize the risks of choking incidents, implementing preventative measures is essential. Some useful practices include:

  • Eating slowly and chewing food thoroughly
  • Cutting food into smaller pieces
  • Avoiding talking and laughing while eating
  • Keeping small objects, particularly those appealing to children, out of reach

Overall, awareness of choking hazards and prompt intervention in case of choking occurrence can prevent many of the potential complications and promote safer eating environments.