Choking is the blockage of the flow of air from the outside environment into the lungs. It may be caused by a piece of food or foreign object in the windpipe; by a respiratory disease that affects the airway; or by a criminal attack (strangulation).

Rosalie's Story

Rosalie is a 22-year-old woman who went out to dinner with friends. They were talking and laughing, eating, and drinking. They were having an enjoyable time. Suddenly, Rosalie started gasping and grabbed at her throat. Her lips and nails started to turn blue. She was unable to speak or breathe. Her friends didn't notice her difficulty. Luckily, a waiter noticed her distress and came to her assistance. He performed the Heimlich maneuver and the piece of food that was obstructing Rosalie's airway popped out. The restaurant staff called 9-1-1, and Rosalie was taken to the emergency department to be checked out. Rosalie was fine because of the waiter's quick action.

What Is Choking?

Choking (CHI-king) is the obstruction (blockage) or constriction (narrowing) of the major airway (windpipe) by a piece of food, a small toy, or other object, resulting in the inability to breathe. The obstruction of the airway prevents the passage of oxygenated air from the mouth and nose through the upper airways into the lungs. This lack of oxygen can lead to respiratory arrest (stoppage of breathing) and death.

How Common Is Choking?

More than 3 million people in the United States experience choking each year. The National Safety Council reported that choking was the fourth leading cause of accidental injury death in 2015.

Major airways

Trachea: The trachea is the passageway that conveys air from the nose and mouth to the bronchi.

Bronchi: The bronchi are the passageways that carry air from the trachea into the lungs. There are two bronchi that branch off from the trachea.

What Increases the Risk of Choking?

There are several factors that increase the risk of choking:

What Are the Signs of Choking?

A person who is choking has trouble breathing; is unable to make a sound; loses consciousness; and develops a bluish color to the lips, fingernails, and skin. Because the person cannot speak or make any sound, he or she cannot tell someone what is happening. The affected person is in severe distress.

How Can Choking Be Prevented?

To prevent choking:

What Should Be Done When Someone Is Choking?

* (abdominal thrusts). If the person becomes unconscious, lower them to the ground and begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Look inside the mouth each time you give breaths and remove any objects or matter you find—but be careful not to push the object or piece of food further down into the throat. Even when choking stops, the person should still be seen and evaluated by medical personnel.

What Is the Heimlich Maneuver?

If the person who is choking is conscious but unable to cough, speak, or breathe, the Heimlich maneuver is an emergency procedure that can help prevent respiratory arrest and death. The Heimlich maneuver is also called abdominal thrusts. The National Safety Council describes the way to perform the Heimlich maneuver as follows:

See also Emergency Resuscitation (CPR) • Parkinson's Disease • Stroke • Tonsillitis • Tumor


Books and Articles

National Safety Council. First Aid, CPR & AED Student Workbook. Itasca, IL: National Safety Council, (n.d.).


MedlinePlus. “Choking.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. (accessed March 22, 2016).

MedlinePlus. “Choking—Unconscious Adult or Child over 1 Year.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. (accessed March 22, 2016).

Merck Manual, Consumer Version. “Choking.” (accessed March 22, 2016).

National Safety Council. “Choking Prevention and Safety Tips.” (accessed March 22, 2016).


American Red Cross. 2025 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20006. Toll-free: 800-RED-CROSS (800-733-2767). Website: (accessed March 22, 2016).

National Safety Council. 1121 Spring Lake Dr., Itasca, IL 601433201. Toll-free: 800-621-7615. Website: (accessed March 22, 2016).

* esophagus (eh-SAH-fuh-gus) is the soft tube that, with swallowing, carries food from the throat to the stomach.

* Heimlich maneuver (HYM-lick) is a technique performed to remove an obstruction, such as a chunk of food, from the upper airway where it is preventing air from passing through to the lungs. Named for its founder, H.J. Heimlich.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)