- Written by Nancy J. Schaaf, RN Nancy J. Schaaf, RN
If you see someone clutching their throat, coughing, gagging, or wheezing, would you know what to do?
When food or other foreign objects become stuck in the airway, they can cause choking. Choking prevents oxygen from getting to the lungs and the brain, and lack of oxygen for more than four minutes may cause brain damage or death.
We should recognize and know how to handle choking at home and in public places. Experts recommend the Heimlich maneuver, or abdominal thrusts, to dislodge objects and prevent suffocation.
National Heimlich Maneuver Day is June 1. Dr. Henry Heimlich invented the maneuver in 1974 when he discovered the remaining air in a person’s lungs could be used to dislodge a foreign object from the esophagus.
This method is essentially an abdominal thrust where we place our fist slightly above the navel of a person who is choking. Then, with our other hand, we grasp our fist and shove it inward and upward to expel the object causing the person to choke.
In 2020, around 5,000 choking deaths occurred in the United States. Choking is not always related to an underlying health condition. It may be caused by eating or drinking quickly, talking with food in the mouth, swallowing food without chewing adequately, or curious children putting objects in their mouths.
Death from choking is more common among the elderly, with food most often responsible for such incidents. Choking is also hazardous among young children, as they can choke on food and small objects, such as toys with small parts or coins.
We can prevent choking in adults by cutting food into small pieces; chewing food slowly and thoroughly, especially if wearing dentures; and avoiding laughing and talking while chewing and swallowing.
Specific preventive measures for infants and children include keeping small objects and other hazards out of reach; cutting their food into small pieces, especially round foods such as hot dogs and grapes; avoiding hard candy; and supervising while children are eating and playing.
However, despite precautions, choking may occur. We should use the Heimlich maneuver if a person is conscious but choking.
We can usually tell a person is choking if they cannot speak, breathe, or cough. Ask the person, “Are you choking?” They may cough but cannot talk to ask for help. The universal choking symbol, holding your hands up and clutching your throat, is often used.
Do not attempt the Heimlich maneuver if a person can speak, cough, or breathe. Encourage the person to keep coughing. Sometimes a strong cough can free the foreign object. Only perform the Heimlich maneuver if a person’s life is in danger.
A different technique is used in infants and small children, so discuss the proper first-aid choking technique with a healthcare provider.
How can we learn the correct way to help someone who is choking? Using abdominal thrusts is often taught during first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) classes. Contact a local chapter of the American Red Cross or American Heart Association or a local hospital or healthcare facility for a class schedule and more information.
National Heimlich Maneuver Day is important, as awareness can save many lives. We all can make a conscious decision to learn more about the method and educate others so that we are prepared the next time an unfortunate choking situation occurs.
The Heimlich Maneuver
- Stand behind the victim with one leg forward, between the victim’s legs.
- For a child, move down to their level, and keep your head to one side.
- Reach around the abdomen and locate the navel.
- Place the thumb side of your fist against the abdomen just above the navel.
- Grasp your fist with your other hand and thrust inward and upward into the victim’s abdomen with quick jerks.
- Continue thrusts until the victim expels the object or becomes unresponsive.
- Even after choking stops, seek medical attention.