How to help when you think someone is choking

What will you do if you see someone choking? What about if you are the one choking? And what exactly does it mean to choke? Probably not what you think. Keep reading to learn all about this common but frightening problem and how to respond.

We’ve all been there…out to dinner with friends, enjoying some popcorn on the couch, or downing a quick burrito on lunch break, and then — uh oh! Something gets caught in your throat. Now you’re coughing, sputtering, and really hoping no one starts slapping your back as hard as they can. Are you choking?

While this can be scary at the moment, rest assured you’re not in danger because you’re not actually choking. If you’re coughing, you’re still breathing, and you should be able to clear the food from your throat.

So if this isn’t choking, what is? It’s important to understand when someone is truly choking so you know when and how to help.

What is choking and how can you tell when it’s happening?

Choking happens when breathing gets disrupted by a blockage in the throat or trachea (windpipe). In some cases, the air flow is completely obstructed; in others, a small amount of air can still pass to the lungs.

When someone is choking, they’ll either make no noise at all or emit a high-pitch wheezing sound. This is when they need help, and we’ll discuss what to do shortly.

When it looks like they’re choking, but they’re not

Recognizing when someone is choking is just as important as knowing when they are not choking. Many times, we see someone coughing hard, having trouble speaking, face turning red, and eyes tearing. We may think they’re choking, but they’re not.

Again, true choking happens when productive air stops moving because a person’s windpipe has gotten blocked. Someone who is coughing or able to speak is not choking. While that coughing may be difficult and even painful, productive air is still flowing in and out.

What should you do in a situation like this? Simply stay with the person and encourage them to keep coughing. Remain calm, reassure them that the coughing is helping, and watch for the object to come out.

What do you do in a real choking situation?

First, please note that the following steps should only be used to help adults (ages 13+) and children (ages 1-13). Infant choking is treated with a different method, which we’ll cover in a future article.

When you suspect someone is choking, approach them and ask, “Are you choking? Can you speak?” If they indicate they are choking and cannot speak, remain calm and tell them you’re going to help. This ensures you don’t scare them or add to their panic with what you’re about to do next.

Begin abdominal thrusts:

  1. Position yourself behind the person.
  2. Stand with your strongest leg between theirs, one foot parallel to theirs, the other braced behind you. If they fall unconscious, this will allow you to safely lower them to the ground. For a child or someone significantly shorter than you, kneel to their level. Kneeling may also be useful when helping someone in a wheelchair.
  3. Wrap your arms around their waist.
  4. Make a fist with your dominant hand, place it thumb-side-in right above the belly button and well below the rib cage. Wrap your other hand around that hand.
  5. With as much force as is necessary based on the size of the person, thrust in and up with a scooping motion.
  6. Repeat until the object or food has come up (or the person passes out).

Generally, the object won’t go flying across the room like in TV comedies. If you don’t actually see it come out, pay attention for other signs that the person is okay. They may start to cough, speak, or even push you away.

Of course, if the object isn’t dislodged, the person will eventually lose consciousness due to lack of oxygen. At that point, lower them to the floor, call 911, and begin CPR.

Other possible scenarios

If the person is pregnant or their abdominal area is too big for your reach, you’ll need to alter your technique. Follow the steps outlined above, but put your arms under their armpits and place your fist at their mid-breast line. Thrust inward only, not in and up.

If you’re choking and alone, you can do abdominal thrusts on yourself. First though, call 911 and don’t hang up. Next, place your fist on your abdomen and thrust in and up until the object is out. You can also use the back of a chair, the edge of a table, or the corner of a washing machine for abdominal thrusts.

Follow-up care

Anyone who has choked should get checked by a physician afterwards. The doctor may even order an X-ray. This is because while we like to think everything came out during rescue, remnants of the food or object could still be stuck. And if anything remains in the windpipe, it could move to a lung, which causes a whole different set of problems.

Why choking rescue skills are so important to learn

Deaths from choking occur most often in children under two years and elderly people over 75. That said, choking is a risk for people of all ages. According to the National Safety Council, choking is the fourth most common cause of accidental death in the US. Choking deaths have averaged around 5,000 per year in the US for the last several years.

However, thousands more people are saved from choking every year. By acting fast and using the simple technique outlined above, you could help save a life, too.

Learn and practice life-saving skills so you’re ready in case of an emergency

Of course, we hope you’re never faced with a choking situation. But if you’d like to prepare yourself with with life-saving skills, we’d like to help. Contact us today to book your group’s CPR and First Aid classes.