What is an airway
An airway obstruction is a blockage in any part of the
airway. The airway is a complex system of tubes that conveys inhaled air from
your nose and mouth into your lungs. An obstruction may partially or totally
prevent air from getting into your lungs. Some airway obstructions are minor
while others are life-threatening emergencies that require immediate medical
Types of airway obstructions
The types of airway obstructions are classified based on
where the obstruction occurs and how much it blocks.
- Upper airway obstructions
occur in the area from your nose and lips to your larynx (voice box).
- 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
- Acute airway obstructions
are blockages that occur quickly. An example of an acute airway obstruction is
choking on a foreign object.
- Chronic airway obstructions
occur two different ways. These can be blockages that take a long time to
develop, or blockages that last for a long time.
causes an airway obstruction?
The classic image of an airway obstruction is someone
choking on a piece of food. But 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
- a respiratory illness that causes upper airway
inflammation, called croup
- swelling of the tongue or epiglottis
- abscesses in the throat or tonsils
- a collapse of the tracheal wall, known as
- chronic bronchitis
- cystic fibrosis
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
is at risk for an airway obstruction?
Children have a higher risk of obstruction by foreign
objects than adults. They’re more likely to stick toys and other small objects
in their noses and mouths. They may also fail to chew food well before
Other risk factors for airway obstruction include:
- having severe allergies to insects such as bees, or
foods such as peanuts
- birth defects or inherited diseases that can cause
- people who have a difficult time swallowing food
properly, such as those who have neuromuscular disorders
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
- cyanosis, or bluish-colored skin
- difficulty breathing
- gasping for air
- high-pitched breathing noises such as wheezing
is an airway obstruction diagnosed?
Airway obstructions are diagnosed by evaluating your signs
and symptoms. Doctors look for signs that include:
- alterations in your normal breathing pattern, whether
rapid or shallow breathing
- decreased breath sounds in your lungs
- high-pitched breath sounds in the upper airway or mouth
- no breathing
- bluish skin color
Certain tests may also be used to determine the cause of
your airway obstruction. During an emergency, your doctor will likely order an
X-ray first to determine the cause of your symptoms. If an X-ray fails to
determine the cause of the obstruction, your doctor may choose to order more
advanced testing. This may include a bronchoscopy. During this procedure,
your doctor inserts an instrument called a bronchoscope through your mouth or
nose to look into your lungs for any foreign bodies. Bronchoscopy can also help
your doctor evaluate different causes of obstruction. This includes
tracheomalacia, or weakness and collapse of the trachea. It also includes
infectious causes, such as mucous plugging in patients with chronic lung
conditions like emphysema and cystic fibrosis.
Your doctor may also order a laryngoscopy. During this
procedure, your doctor will examine your larynx with an instrument called a
laryngoscope. Additional tests may include a CT scan of the head, neck, or
chest to determine other sources of obstruction, such as epiglottitis. This is
an infection and inflammation of the epiglottis. The epiglottis is the flap of
tissue that protects and covers your trachea from food and foreign bodies.
is an airway obstruction treated?
An airway obstruction is usually an emergency situation. You
should call 911 if you see someone experiencing an airway obstruction. Some things
you can do while you’re waiting for emergency services to arrive include:
The Heimlich maneuver
This is an emergency technique that may help a person who is
choking on a foreign object. The maneuver involves one person standing behind
the person who is choking, wrapping their arms around their waist. The person
performing the maneuver should then make a fist with one hand and put it near
the person’s bellybutton. They should then grab first with their other hand,
and press into the person’s abdomen with five quick thrusts. Repeat the cycle
of five back blows and five abdominal thrusts until the object becomes
dislodged, or emergency services arrive.
Epinephrine can be used to treat airway swelling due to an
allergic reaction. People with severe allergies, such as those with allergies
to food or bee stings, can develop sudden and rapid swelling of the throat and
tongue. This can lead to near or complete airway obstruction within minutes. People
who have severe allergies usually carry EpiPens. These are simple injectors
People who carry EpiPens are instructed to deliver one
injection into the outer thigh as soon as they experience symptoms of a severe
allergic reaction. An epinephrine injector can help a person experiencing
anaphylactic shock while they are waiting for medical services to arrive. Medical
professionals should always evaluate people who receive epinephrine injections
as soon as possible.
CPR is used when a person is
unable to breathe and has lost consciousness. It keeps oxygenated blood flowing
to the brain until emergency services arrive. To perform CPR, you should place
the heel of your hand in the center of their chest. Place your other hand on
top, and use your upper body weight to push straight down on the chest. You
should do this about 100 times in a minute until an ambulance arrives.
Once an ambulance has arrived, there are several different
ways airway obstruction can be treated based on what caused it.
An endotracheal or nasotracheal tube
may be inserted into the airway. This can help get oxygen through swollen
airways. A tracheostomy and
cricothyrotomy are surgical
openings made in the airway to bypass an obstruction. These procedures should
be performed by highly trained medical professionals and are generally required
when all of the above interventions have failed.
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
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.