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Choking can result when there is a partial or complete blockage in the airway, usually caused by a piece of stuck food. With a partial blockage, the victim is getting some air and coughing. With a complete obstruction, there is no air exchange and the skin and lips begin to turn blue.
With a partial obstruction, try to keep the victim calm. As long as some air is moving through the victim's airway, encourage him or her to attempt to cough until trained medical assistance arrives. Coughing can help to dislodge the material that is blocking the airway. Do not pat the victim's back or interfere in any way unless the airway becomes completely blocked.
If a choking situation worsens — the victim can no longer cough, speak or breathe — the obstruction has become complete and requires intervention.
For a conscious choking victim with complete obstruction, you should begin performing the Heimlich maneuver immediately. This is a forceful movement in which pressure against abdomen pushes the diaphragm upwards and causes a sudden build up of pressure in the lung airways that pushes against the blockage. This maneuver can force the obstruction out of the airway. To learn the Heimlich maneuver as it applies to unconscious victims, infants younger than 1 year, obese people and pregnant women, contact your local American Heart Association or American Red Cross or your community hospital, YMCA or ambulance corps. These organizations can provide information on classes in your area.
The Heimlich maneuver
To perform the Heimlich maneuver on a conscious adult or child older than 1 year, stand behind the person who is choking and slide one foot between his or her feet. Wrap your arms around the person's waist, and place one of your hands just above the belly button but below the rib cage, with your thumb downward. Then clasp your other hand over the first.
In an abrupt motion, pull up and back, exerting strong upward force on the person's abdomen. Repeat the maneuver until the choking person is able to move air and cough, until the person coughs up the object or until emergency workers arrive.
If you are alone and feel that you are choking, you can perform the same technique on your own abdomen Clasp one hand in a fist, place your other hand over it, then repeatedly thrust upward and back.
This life-saving maneuver poses the risk of injury to internal organs. It is preferable that you receive training to perform this technique properly, particularly if you have infants or small children in the house.
When to call a doctor
- All choking experiences that do not correct quickly and all complete obstructions should receive emergency medical assistance. Call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Anyone who has been treated with the Heimlich maneuver should be seen by a doctor afterward.