Know What to Do if Someone is Choking
Take a Minute to Learn a Valuable Lesson
We’ve all experienced that monetary panic of choking, the sensation that food or some other foreign object “went down the wrong pipe” and is obstructing your airway. Most of the time, a few hearty coughs are enough to clear the obstruction and allow you to move air through your windpipe (trachea) and into your lungs. So what should you do if someone nearby is choking and cannot clear their airway? With a little knowledge, this is one situation where one person can make a huge difference in theirs or someone else’s life.
The universal sign for choking is clutching the hands at the throat. This may not occur in all cases and other signs include:
- Inability to talk
- Inability to cough with any force
- Noisy, snoring-sounding or labored breathing
- Pale or bluish skin color
- Loss of consciousness
The general rule is if someone is able to cough forcefully, to allow him or her to continue to try to clear their airway while monitoring them closely.
In the meantime, here's what you can do:
1. Call 9-1-1 immediately in this situation. Emergency personnel have special tools and experience to deal with this situation, and it is much better to send them on their way after a “false alarm” then to be without them.
2. If an adult is upright and choking, the Red Cross recommends the following:
- Give 5 back blows with the heel of your hand between the person’s shoulder blades
- Give five abdominal thrusts (Heimlich maneuver)
- Alternate between the two until the airway is clear or the patient loses consciousness
Even if you’ve never done the Heimlich maneuver before, if no one else is able to help the person choking, stand behind them place one balled up fist just above their navel with the other hand over it, and give forceful thrusts up and in (towards their spine).
3. If the person becomes unconscious and is on the floor, see if you can visualize the obstruction in their mouth. If you can sweep it out with a finger, attempt to. Do not push it further back in their throat. If you cannot dislodge the item, begin chest compressions, which may help dislodge the obstruction.
For obese people or pregnant women: Place your hands just below the sternum (breastbone) and perform the Heimlich maneuver. Alternate with back blows, and continue until the airway is cleared or the person loses consciousness.
For infants under one year old: Hold the infant facedown on your forearm and perform five gentle but firm thumps on the middle of the back with the heel of your hand. Alternate five back blows with five chest compressions, done with two fingers at the infant’s sternum (breastbone). Begin infant CPR (9-1-1 operator will often talk you through this) if you are not successful.
Don’t be concerned about liability in case you don’t follow proper protocols to perfection. Most states and jurisdictions have Good Samaritan laws that release you from any liability caused by your actions as long as your intent was to help.
Now you’re armed with a life saving tool. It’s your responsibility to use it should you ever need to. Believe me, someone will thank you for it.