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What causes choking? 17 possible conditions

What Is Choking?

Choking occurs when an object, food, or liquid becomes lodged in the throat. Children often choke as a result of placing foreign objects into their mouths. Adults normally choke due to breathing in fumes or eating or drinking too rapidly. Most people choke at some point in their lives. It is usually short-lived and doesn’t pose any real danger. However, choking can be dangerous and cause life-threatening complications.

Identifying a Choking Person

Know the signs of choking. A person who is choking may cough continuously until the food or liquid is expelled from the throat or airway. However, in some cases the object, food, or liquid becomes lodged in the throat, cutting off the air supply.

A person who is choking may display the following emergency signs:

  • inability to speak
  • inability to cough
  • inability to make noise
  • inability to breathe
  • blue tint to the lips, skin, or nails from lack of oxygen

The person may also have his or her hands crossed over the throat to let you know he or she is choking.

Emergency Care

Use the Red Cross’s five-and-five method to treat a person who’s choking.

  • Use the heel of your hand to hit the person’s back five times between the shoulder blades.
  • Perform the Heimlich maneuver five times.
  • Alternate between the previous two options until the person is no longer choking.

To do the Heimlich maneuver, perform the following steps:

  • Stand behind the person with your arms wrapped around his or her waist.
  • Lean the person forward.
  • Ball your hand into a fist and place it on the person’s abdomen above the navel.
  • Use your free hand to grip your fist and press into the person’s abdomen in an upward motion.
  • Repeat this method five times. If the object is still lodged in the person’s throat, repeat the steps five more times.

If the person is unconscious, clear his or her airway if you see what’s blocking it. You can do this using your finger. However, be careful not to push the object further into the throat.

Call 911, and then begin CPR. To perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation):

  • lay the person down on a flat surface
  • kneel on the side of the unconscious person
  • place your hand in the middle of their chest, palm downplace your free hand over the top of the other lean forward with your shoulders
  • push down quickly

This is called a chest compression. Repeat this process several times as needed.

Do not give a child the five-and-five method. Only give a child the Heimlich maneuver.

Choking Hazards

Children usually choke when placing objects into their mouths. Children normally do this out of curiosity. However, they may also choke when eating too quickly or when talking with food in their mouths.

Common objects that children choke on include:

  • popcorn
  • candy
  • pencil erasers
  • carrots
  • hotdogs
  • chewing gum
  • peanuts
  • cherry tomatoes
  • whole grapes
  • large pieces of fruit and vegetables

Adults usually choke when swallowing food without chewing it properly or when laughing while eating or drinking.

Choking Complications

Complications of choking include:

  • throat damage (irritation)
  • death from asphyxiation

Preventing Choking

Prevent your child from choking by keeping his or her play area free of small objects, such as coins, erasers, and Lego blocks. Chop your child’s food into small pieces, making it easier for him or her to swallow. Discourage your child from talking while eating.

Prevent yourself from choking by:

  • chewing your food completely
  • avoiding talking while eating
  • avoiding laughing while eating
  • keeping water near you while eating

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


Swallowed (or Inhaled) Foreign Object

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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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Near Drowning

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Myasthenia Gravis

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Allergies Overview

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Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a condition chararcterized by persistent anxiety and recurrent panic attacks. Sweating or chills are possible signs of a panic attack.

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Agoraphobia With Panic Attacks

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Central Sleep Apnea

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Head Injury

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

A head injury could be an injury to the brain, skull, or scalp. It can vary in severity depending on the cause. In some cases face swelling can be a sign of a head injury.

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Parkinson's Disease

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Stroke Overview

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

A stroke (a "brain attack") is a medical emergency in which part of the brain is deprived of oxygen. This occurs when an artery that supplies oxygenated blood to the brain becomes damaged and brain cells begin to die.

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Spinal Cord Injury

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

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Muscular Dystrophies

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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping cough is a serious respiratory infection caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. The infection causes violent, uncontrollable coughing that can make it difficult to breathe. Whooping cough ca...

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Multiple Sclerosis Overview

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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.