What should you do if someone is choking?

A child choking on food

Choking risk is highest in older adults and children under 5 (Getty Images)

There’s a good chance you’ll witness someone choking at some point in your life: Choking is the fourth leading cause of accidental death from injury, according to the National Safety Council.

You’ve been warned about the risk of choking from a young age, but would you actually know what to do if someone around you is suffocating? If not, it’s crucial to learn, experts say. “In choking, there is an obstruction in a person’s airways, and failure to act will unfortunately lead to eventual suffocation and suffocation,” says Dr. Eric Adkins, an emergency medicine physician at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Yahoo Life.

It’s also essential to act quickly, says Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Yahoo Life. “Sometimes you have minutes or even seconds to repair that airway before permanent damage is done,” she says. “It’s a scary 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 the time to take a course or just know you’ll never get around to it, it’s important to have at least some basic knowledge of what to do in an emergency. This is what experts recommend.

First, who is most likely to choke?

“Suffocation can happen to anyone,” said Dr Zeeshan Khan, an associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, but added that children under 5 and older adults are most at risk.

Children under the age of 4 are especially prone to choking “because they have smaller airways to begin with and they’re not used to handling different textures of food,” Fisher says. They are also “impulsive about what they put in their mouths,” she adds.

In older adults, “swallowing function may change, making people more prone to choking,” Adkins says.

Common Causes of Choking

Choking can occur in a variety of situations, but experts say the leading causes in children are food, coins, toys and balloons.

In adults, “the most common cause of choking is almost always food,” Khan says. However, he adds, “The elderly can have problems chewing and swallowing, which can lead to choking.”

What to do if a baby is choking?

If anyone else is, Fisher recommends asking them to call 911 while you take action. And if you’re alone, try to loosen the food first. “Your first attempt will be more life-saving than calling 911 first,” she says.

If a child is under age 1, you’ll want to hold the baby face down and do kickbacks, Fisher says. “That means you take the heel of your hand and aim between the shoulder blades,” she says. This creates a strong vibration and pressure in the airways, which can usually dislodge the object, she says.

The British Red Cross specifically recommends that you do up to five backstrokes while holding the baby face down along your thigh with their head lower than their rear and their head supportive. If the back blows don’t help, turn the baby over so they are facing up, place two fingers in the center of their chest just below the nipples and push down sharply up to five times. This squeezes air out of the baby’s lungs and can help clear the blockage, according to the British Red Cross.

If a baby is choking, the British Red Cross recommends a maximum of five backstrokes

If a baby is choking, the British Red Cross recommends giving up to five back blows while holding the baby face down. (Getty Images)

What to do if a child is choking?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using the Heimlich maneuver in children who are choking. Again, ask someone to call 911 if they are available while you take action. You can do this when the child is lying, sitting or standing.

If they’re sitting or standing, stand behind them and wrap your arms around their waists, the AAP says. Place the thumb side of your fist in the center of their abdomen, grab that fist with your free hand and press in with quick, upward thrusts. Repeat these punches until the object is coughed up or the child begins to breathe or cough.

If the child is unconscious, you will want to do a so-called tongue jaw lift. To do this, the AAP tells them to open their mouth with your thumb 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 removing it with a sideways flick of your finger – be careful as this can push the object down even further.

If the child has stopped breathing, gently tilt their head back and lift their chin, the AAP says. Then place your own mouth over their mouth, pinch their nose and give two breaths of one and a half to two seconds. Then return to the Heimlich maneuver. Keep 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 first ask if they’re choking, Adkins says. If they indicate this is the case, you will take similar steps as you would for a child, according to the American Red Cross. Give them five back blows, followed by five abdominal thrusts, if the blows haven’t dislodged the object.

Keep repeating this cycle or call 911 if you are unable to remove the object.

After the choking episode has resolved, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, Khan says. “There can be complications from the episode,” he says.

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