Asphyxiation, also called asphyxia or suffocation, is when the body doesn’t get enough oxygen. Without immediate intervention, it can lead to loss of consciousness, brain injury, or death.

The term “asphyxia” is different from “asphyxiated.” Asphyxia refers to the condition of oxygen deprivation, while asphyxiated means a person has died due to oxygen deprivation. The latter is used to describe how someone has died.

Asphyxiation is a common cause of injuries that lead to death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suffocation led to 18,924 deaths in 2018.

Read on to learn about the causes of asphyxiation, along with treatments and prevention methods.

There are many possible causes of asphyxiation. Many causes are due to an airway obstruction, inhaling chemicals, or an injury.

Asphyxiation may be caused by:

Drowning

Drowning is when a person can’t breathe because they’ve inhaled water. As a result, their body is unable to deliver oxygen to their tissues and organs.

In many cases, drowning happens quickly. Individuals who have a high risk of drowning include:

  • children younger than 5 years old
  • teenagers
  • older people

Chemical asphyxia

Chemical asphyxia involves inhaling a substance that cuts off the body’s oxygen supply. The substance may replace oxygen in the lungs or disrupt oxygen delivery in the blood.

A chemical that causes asphyxia is called an asphyxiant. One example is carbon monoxide, an odorless and colorless gas that’s found in smoke. Breathing in large amounts of carbon monoxide can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Chemical asphyxia may also occur if you use inhalants. These substances are often found in common household products, and they have chemical fumes that cause psychoactive effects when inhaled. In high amounts, these fumes can lead to asphyxiation.

Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction to food, medicine, or an insect sting.

During anaphylaxis, the body thinks a substance is an invader. Your immune system makes antibodies, which release chemicals that cause symptoms like swelling, hives, or shortness of breath.

This includes swelling of the upper airways. Without treatment, the swelling can get worse and disrupt breathing.

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the airways. It can cause symptoms like difficulty breathing and wheezing.

During a severe asthma attack, your airways swell and constrict. Without immediate treatment, the airways can become too narrow and cut off oxygen supply.

An asthma attack can be triggered by:

  • allergens (like pollen or animal dander)
  • chemical irritants
  • strong odors
  • stressful event
  • respiratory infection

Airway blocked with foreign object

Choking happens when a foreign object is stuck in the airway. This makes it difficult to inhale oxygen.

For example, choking may occur if a person incorrectly swallows food. It can also happen due to an alcohol overdose. High amounts of alcohol can reduce a person’s gag reflex, potentially causing them to choke on their own vomit.

Strangulation

Strangulation happens when pressure is placed on the neck by a hand, ligature, or other object. This can reduce a person’s ability to inhale oxygen. It can also hinder oxygen circulation in the body.

Incorrect body positioning

If a person’s body is in a position that blocks the airways, it’s called positional asphyxia. This can occur if the body position interferes with normal inhalation or oxygen circulation.

Newborn babies and infants are at high risk of positional asphyxia. That’s because they’re unable to reposition themselves to unblock their airways.

Seizure

When a person has a seizure, they may experience pauses in breathing called apnea. These pauses can interfere with their oxygen intake.

The convulsions during a seizure can also cause an object to block or cover the person’s airways, resulting in asphyxiation.

Drug overdose

An overdose of a drug, like opioids, can interfere with the brain’s ability to regulate breathing. In turn, the person is unable to breathe deeply and exhale carbon dioxide. This increases their carbon dioxide levels and reduces oxygen in the body.

Asphyxiation can occur during childbirth. This is called birth asphyxia or perinatal asphyxia.

During birth asphyxia, there is insufficient blood or oxygen flow to the fetus. This can happen just before, during, or after childbirth. Most cases happen during the process of giving birth.

Possible causes include:

  • lack of oxygen in the mother’s blood
  • reduced breathing in the mother due to anesthesia
  • fever or low blood pressure in the mother
  • umbilical cord compression
  • poor function of the placenta
  • placental abruption
  • uterine rupture

The symptoms of birth asphyxia vary. Before delivery, the baby might have an abnormal heart rate or high acid levels in their blood.

During childbirth, a baby with birth asphyxia may have:

  • pale or blueish skin
  • low heart rate
  • weak reflexes
  • weak cry or breathing
  • gasping

Birth asphyxia might cause problems with the baby’s:

  • cell function
  • brain
  • heart
  • blood vessels
  • gastrointestinal tract
  • kidneys
  • lungs

Erotic asphyxiation is when a person cuts off their partner’s oxygen supply for sexual arousal. It’s also called sexual asphyxia or “breath play.”

This form of asphyxiation may involve acts like suffocation, choking, or compressing the other person’s chest.

Erotic asphyxiation can be dangerous. The person performing the act might underestimate the severity of oxygen restriction. In other cases, the person experiencing asphyxia might be unable to communicate that they can’t breathe.

If erotic asphyxiation continues, the brain might not receive enough oxygen. This can result in serious brain injury or death.

Autoerotic asphyxiation

Autoerotic asphyxiation is when a person performs erotic asphyxiation on themselves. They might use choking, strangulation, or chest compression to reduce their own oxygen intake.

Like erotic asphyxiation, autoerotic asphyxiation is done to increase sexual pleasure. These acts are usually done alone.

This type of asphyxiation is extremely dangerous because no one’s around to help if you lose too much oxygen.

Common symptoms of asphyxiation include:

Treatment for asphyxiation depends on the cause. It may include:

  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). CPR is a procedure that involves chest compressions to promote blood and oxygen circulation. It’s used when a person’s heart stops beating.
  • Heimlich maneuver. The Heimlich maneuver is a first aid technique for choking. It uses abdominal thrusts below the diaphragm to remove a foreign object from a person’s airways.
  • Oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy delivers oxygen to your lungs. It may involve a ventilator, a breathing tube, or a mask or nose tube that provides oxygen.
  • Medication. Medication can help ease the effects of an allergic reaction, severe asthma attack, or drug overdose. For example, epinephrine (EpiPen) can quickly treat anaphylaxis.

Practicing caution is the best way to prevent asphyxiation. But the exact steps for preparedness depend on the specific cause.

Here’s how to prevent:

Drowning

Never enter a body of water without another person present. Avoid swimming in bad weather.

Wear a life jacket or take swimming lessons if you don’t know how to swim. Never swim while using alcohol or drugs.

Always supervise babies or young children near water. This includes babies in the bathtub or sink.

Chemical asphyxia

To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, install a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Replace the batteries regularly.

Never use a gasoline or charcoal-burning appliance in your home or in the garage. Avoid letting your car run in the garage. Get your gas, coal, or oil-burning appliances inspected each year.

Anaphylaxis

Avoid any foods or substances that you know you’re allergic to. Double-check the ingredients when eating at restaurants.

Visit an allergist if you’re not sure what you’re allergic to. Keep an EpiPen on hand and make sure others know where to find it.

Asthma

If you have asthma, work with your doctor to develop an asthma management plan. Carry your inhaler with you at all times. Avoid your known asthma triggers.

Choking

Avoid putting foreign objects in your mouth. When you eat, chew slowly and avoid talking.

Always supervise young children during mealtimes. Make sure they sit up straight and cut their food into tiny pieces. Keep small objects, like household items and toys, out of their reach.

Strangulation

Learning self-defense techniques can help you prevent strangulation.

When dressing babies or young children, be mindful of drawstrings around the neck. Avoid letting them play with ribbon, cord, or strings. Keep their sleeping area free of soft and loose materials.

Incorrect body positioning

Place babies on their back for sleeping. This keeps their nose and mouth from being obstructed.

Seizure

If another person is having a seizure, loosen any accessories around their neck. Clear the area and make sure there are no heavy objects nearby.

Drug overdose

If you think someone is experiencing a drug overdose, call 911 immediately. Avoid leaving the person alone.

Asphyxiation is caused by lack of oxygen. It can quickly lead to loss of consciousness, brain injury, or death. Some causes of asphyxiation include drowning, asthma, and choking.

Asphyxiation is often caused by accident. To prevent it, use caution and avoid leaving babies and small children alone.

If another person is experiencing asphyxia, call 911. Getting emergency assistance can help save someone’s life.