There’s a good chance you’ll see someone choke at some point in your life: Choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death, according to the National Safety Council.
You’ve been warned about the danger of choking since you were young, but would you know what to do if someone around you was choking? If not, it’s vital to learn, experts say. “With choking, a person’s airway is blocked and failure to act will unfortunately lead to suffocation and asfaxation,” Dr. Eric Adkins, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life.
It is also necessary to act quickly, Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “Sometimes you have minutes or seconds to reestablish that airway before permanent damage is done,” she says. “It’s an alarming situation that requires an immediate response.”
Many organizations, including the Red Cross, offer courses on what to do if someone is choking. But if you don’t have time to take a course or you know you’ll never succeed, it’s important to have at least a basic knowledge of what to do in an emergency. This is what experts recommend.
First, who is most likely to choke?
“Toddler can happen to anyone,” says Dr. Zeeshan Khan, an associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, but he added that children under 5 and older adults are at risk. .
Children under the age of 4 are especially prone to it “because they have smaller airways to begin with, and they’re not used to handling different textures of food,” says Fisher. They are also “careful about what they put in their mouths,” she says.
In older adults, “swallowing function can change, making people more prone to choking,” says Adkins.
Common causes of choking
Choking can happen in a variety of situations, but experts say food, tires, toys and balloons are the main causes for children.
Among adults, “the most common cause of choking is almost always food,” says Khan. However, he says, “elderly people may have chewing and swallowing problems that can lead to choking.”
What to do if a child is choking
If anyone else is there, Fisher suggests asking them to call 911 while you’re in action. And, if you are alone, try to drop the food first. “Your first attempt will be more life-saving than calling 911 first,” she says.
If a baby is under 1 year old, you’ll want to hold the baby’s face down and push back, says Fisher. “That means taking the heels of your hands and focusing between the shoulder blades,” she says. This creates strong vibrations and pressure in the airway, which can usually dislodge the object, she says.
The British Red Cross specifically recommends that you give up to five back blows and hold the baby face down on your thigh with their head lower than theirs and supporting their head. If the back blows don’t help, turn the baby over so he’s facing up, place two fingers in the middle of his chest just below the nipples, and push down sharply up to five times. This forces air out of the baby’s lungs and may help to release the blockage, according to the British Red Cross.
What to do if a child is choking
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using the Heimlich maneuver on children who are choking. Again, have someone call 911 if they are available, while you are in action. You can do this when the baby is lying, sitting or standing.
If they are sitting or standing, stand behind them and wrap your arms around their waist, says the AAP. Place the thumb side of your fist in the middle of her belly, grab that fist with your free hand and press in with a quick upward thrust. Repeat these poses until the coughed up or the child starts breathing or coughing.
If the child is not aware, you will want to do what is called a tongue-jaw lift. To do this, the AAP says to open their mouth with your thumb held over their tongue and your fingers wrapped around the lower jaw (this pulls the tongue away from the back of the throat). You may be able to clear the airway this way. If you can see what’s causing the blockage, try to remove it with a sideways brush of your finger – be careful, as this may push the object down even further.
If the baby hasn’t started breathing again, gently tilt his head back and lift his chin, says the AAP. Then, put your own mouth over their mouth, pinch their nose shut and give two breaths that last a second and a half and two seconds. Then, return to the Heimlich maneuver. Continue repeating the steps until the child starts breathing again or help arrives.
What to do if an adult is choking
For adults, it’s important to ask first if they’re choking, Adkins says. If they indicate they are, take similar steps as you would for your child, according to the American Red Cross. Give them five backstabs, followed by five abdominal thrusts, if the blows don’t release the object.
Continue repeating this cycle or call 911 if you cannot release the object.
After the choking incident is resolved, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, says Khan. “There could be complications from the incident,” he says.
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