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What causes airway obstruction? 8 possible conditions

What Is an Airway Obstruction?

An airway obstruction is a blockage in the airway. It may partially or totally prevent air from getting into your lungs. Some airway obstructions are life-threatening emergencies. They require immediate medical attention to prevent death.

Types of Airway Obstructions

Upper airway obstructions occur in the area from your nose and lips to your larynx.

Lower airway obstructions occur between your larynx and the narrow passageways of your lungs.

Partial airway obstructions allow some air to pass. You can still breathe with a partial airway obstruction, but it will be difficult.

Complete airway obstructions do not allow any air to pass. You cannot breathe if you have a complete airway obstruction.

Acute airway obstructions are blockages that occur quickly. An example of an acute airway obstruction is choking on a foreign object.

Chronic airway obstructions can occur in one of two ways. These can be blockages that take a long time to develop. They may also be blockages that last for a long time. For example, emphysema can cause a chronic airway obstruction.

What Causes an Airway Obstruction?

The classic image of an airway obstruction is someone choking on a piece of food. However, that’s only one of many things that can cause an airway obstruction. Other causes include:

  • inhaling or swallowing a foreign object
  • a small object becoming lodged in the nose or mouth
  • allergic reactions
  • trauma to the airway from an accident
  • vocal cord problems
  • breathing in a large amount of smoke from a fire
  • viral infections
  • bacterial infections
  • croup - a respiratory illness that causes upper airway inflammation
  • swelling of the tongue or epiglottis
  • abscesses in the throat or tonsils
  • a collapse of the tracheal wall, known as tracheomalacia
  • asthma
  • chronic bronchitis
  • emphysema
  • cystic fibrosis
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Who Is at Risk for an Airway Obstruction?

Children have a higher risk of obstruction by foreign objects than adults. They are more likely to stick toys and other small objects in their noses and mouths. They may also fail to chew food well before swallowing.

However, there are also other risk factors for airway obstruction. These include:

  • having severe allergies to insects such as bees, or foods such as peanuts
  • birth defects or inherited disease that can cause airway problems
  • smoking

What Are the Symptoms of an Airway Obstruction?

The symptoms of an airway obstruction depend on the cause. They also depend on the location of the obstruction. Symptoms you may experience include:

  • agitation
  • cyanosis (bluish-colored skin)
  • confusion
  • difficulty breathing
  • gasping for air
  • panic
  • breathing noises such as wheezing
  • unconsciousness

How Is an Airway Obstruction Diagnosed?

Airway obstructions are diagnosed by evaluating your symptoms. Doctors look for signs that include:

  • slowed breathing
  • rapid breathing
  • decreased breath sounds in your lungs
  • no breathing
  • bluish skin color
  • unconsciousness

Certain tests may also be used to determine the cause of your airway obstruction. These may include:

  • bronchoscopy – a device called a bronchoscope is used to look into your lungs
  • laryngoscopy – your larynx is examined using a scope

An X-ray can also be used to look for obstructions.

How is an Airway Obstruction Treated?

Treatment for an airway obstruction depends on the cause of the obstruction.

The Heimlich maneuver is an emergency technique that may help a person is choking. It uses abdominal thrusts to dislodge a foreign object.

An endotracheal or nasotracheal tube may be inserted into the airway. This can help get oxygen through swollen airways.

Tracheostomy and cricothyrotomy are openings made in the airway to bypass an obstruction.

Epinephrine can be used to treat airway swelling due to an allergic reaction. Some people with severe allergies carry EpiPens. These are simple injectors containing epinephrine.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can be used to help you if you are not breathing.

Prognosis after Airway Obstruction

With prompt treatment, an airway obstruction can often be treated successfully. However, airway obstructions are extremely dangerous. They can be fatal even with treatment.

If you or someone you know may have an airway obstruction, get help immediately.

Prevention of Airway Obstruction

Many types of airway obstructions can be prevented. Reduce your risk by doing the following:

  • Avoid drinking a lot of alcohol before eating.
  • Eat small bites of food.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Supervise small children when eating.
  • Chew thoroughly before swallowing.
  • Make sure your dentures fit properly.
  • Keep small objects away from children.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Visit your doctor regularly if you have a condition that can cause a chronic airway obstruction.

Article Sources:

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Swallowed (or Inhaled) Foreign Object

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Anyone can swallow a foreign object. However, infants and toddlers have a natural tendency to put things in their mouths, which puts them at higher risk.

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Diphtheria is a sometimes fatal bacterial infection that affects the nose and throat's membranes. Diptheria of the skin may show up as a red rash.

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Laryngitis occurs when your voice box and vocal cords become swollen and irritated. This fairly common condition often causes hoarseness or loss of voice.

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Epiglottitis is characterized by inflamed tissue in your epiglottis. It's a potentially life-threatening illness. The epiglottis is at the base of the tongue.

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Peritonsillar Abscess

A peritonsillar abscess is usually a complication of tonsillitis or another bacterial infection. Get it treated quickly to avoid potentially serious problems.

Read more »



This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

When people with severe allergies are exposed to their allergen, a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis can result: a series of symptoms such as rash, abdominal pain, and difficulty breathing and shock.

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Chemical Burns

Chemical burns occur when the skin or eyes come into contact with irritants, such as acids or bases. Symptoms vary, but skin reactions, pain or numbness are common.

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Retropharyngeal Abscess

A retropharyngeal abscess means you have pus in the tissue at the back of your throat. This often occurs during or after a throat infection. This type of abscess mostly occurs in children under five. However, it ca...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.