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Common Choking Hazards and What to Do if You Choke

Author: ParkwayHealth   View:1099 times  Date: 2021-12-15


Sometimes food goes down the wrong pipe and gets stuck. This leads to choking, which is when a foreign object is trapped in the airway suddenly, blocking the flow of air into the lungs.

Dr Angela Wang, Adult Medicine physician at ParkwayHealth, explains what happens when food goes down the wrong pipe, and the most common scenarios where it happens.

If you swallow correctly, food is meant to go down your esophagus into your stomach. When food goes down the ‘wrong pipe’, ie. your trachea (commonly known as the windpipe), it causes choking. Choking can be partial, where the airway is partly blocked. This may result in lung complications, such as pneumonia, atelectasis, with symptoms such as coughing, wheezing or breathlessness.

When the airway is fully blocked, it is an emergency that requires immediate treatment to remove the object that is blocking the airflow. Irreversible brain damage occurs within 5 minutes of interrupted breathing. Brain death occurs in about 10 minutes.

Most common choking foods

Common food items resulting in choking, especially in children, include:

  • Hot dog
  • Hard candy
  • Chewing gum
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Chunks of meat or cheese
  • Whole grapes
  • Popcorn
  • Chunks of peanut butter
  • Raw vegetables
  • Raisins

Most common choking risks and scenarios

Advanced age

As you grow older, your gag reflex may decrease and this increases the chance of choking.

Drinking alcohol

Your swallowing mechanism and gag reflex can be impaired if you’ve had excessive alcohol.

Diseases resulting in swallowing problems

Parkinson’s disease is an example of a condition that disrupts the swallowing mechanism. Patients are prone to choking and recurrent pulmonary infections.

Big bites

Taking a big bite of a steak larger than what your mouth can chew can result in improper swallowing and breathing, and thus choking. Eating too many small items like nuts at once can also result in choking since these nuts are small and can end up in the airway.

Inattention while eating

Sometimes when you’re talking, laughing and eating at the same time, your coordination of swallowing and breathing can lapse and result in choking. For kids, running while eating increases the chance of choking as the child may inhale the food while taking a deep breath.

What should you do during a food choke?

You should immediately perform the universal sign of choking by grasping your neck with both hands if possible.

If you are alone, you should  seek help by all means immediately. You can then attempt to self-perform the Heimlich manoeuvre to try to dislodge the food item as shown below.

  • Place a fist slightly above your navel
  • Grasp your fist with the other hand and bend over a hard surface – a countertop or chair will do
  • Shove your fist inward and upward

What about food that gets stuck in the throat?

Sometimes food goes down the ‘right pipe’ but gets stuck. For food that is stuck in the throat and not the airways, you can try drinking some water to see if it can move down.

However, if it is a bone that is stuck in the throat, do NOT attempt to remove it by yourself. Trying to remove the bone by using your fingers or swallowing mashed food like banana can lead to injury around the throat.

If food is stuck in your throat and cannot be removed, head to the accident and emergency (A&E) department immediately. Food that is stuck in the throat increases the risk of aspiration, where the food enters the windpipe, and this can be dangerous. A doctor can help to remove the food item safely. If the object is stuck at a deeper site in the throat, specialized equipment will be needed to remove the object.

Article reviewed by Dr Angela Wang, Adult Medicine physician at ParkwayHealth

Angela Wang-01

Copyright: Health Plus an online health and wellness web resource developed by Parkway Singapore

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