Causes and signals of choking

More than 3,000 people die each year as a result of choking? Would you be able to recognize if a family member or friend started to choke? What activities might lead to choking? Here are some common causes of choking:

  • Trying to swallow large pieces of poorly chewed food.
  • Drinking alcohol before or during meals. Alcohol dulls the nerves that aid in swallowing.
  • Wearing dentures. Dentures make it difficult to sense whether food is fully chewed before it is swallowed.
  • Eating while talking excitedly or laughing.
  • Eating too fast.
  • Walking, playing or running with food or objects in the mouth.


Choking is the inability to breathe because the trachea is blocked, constricted, or swollen shut.


Choking is a medical emergency. When a person is choking, air cannot reach the lungs. If the airways cannot be cleared, death follows rapidly.Anyone can choke, but choking is more common in children than in adults.

Regardless of the cause, choking cuts off the air supply to the lungs. Indications that a person’s airway is blocked include:

  • the person cannot speak or cry out
  • the person’s face turns blue from lack of oxygen
  • the person desperately grabs at his or her throat
  • the person has a weak cough and labored breathing that produces a high-pitched noise
  • the person has all of the above symptoms, then becomes unconscious
  • during sleep, the person has episodes of gasping, pauses in breathing, and sudden awakenings.


To understand choking, you first have to understand what goes on at the back of your throat hundreds of times per day. All the food you eat and the air you breathe passes through your throat to get into your body. Food and liquid go down one pipe – the esophagus (say: ih-sah-fuh-gus) – to your stomach. Air goes down another pipe – the trachea (say: tray-kee-uh), or windpipe – to your lungs. These two pipes share an opening at the back of your throat.

So if they share an opening, how does the food know which pipe to go down? Lucky for you, your body has it all under control. A little flap of cartilage (say: kar-tel-ij) called the eepiglottis (say: eh-pih-glah-tis) sits near your trachea, and every time you swallow, it springs into action. Acting like a little door, it closes off the entrance to your trachea so that food is sent down your esophagus into your stomach instead of into your lungs.

But every once in a while, the epiglottis doesn’t close in time. A piece of food, like Kevin’s hot dog, can slip down into the trachea. Most of the time, it’s no big deal. Your body makes you cough and forces it back up.

You’ve probably experienced this. Did you ever have a sip of a drink that “went down the wrong pipe”? You probably coughed a lot and it might have been scary, but usually you’re fine in just a few seconds. That’s because coughing is the body’s natural defense against stuff that doesn’t belong in the trachea. A good cough often can clear out a piece of food – or even an object – that heads down the trachea. If a person can still breathe and talk, coughing often does the trick.

But when someone is truly choking it means the food or object is completely blocking the trachea and air cannot flow into and out of the lungs. The person cannot cough the object out. They can’t breathe, talk, or even make noise. They may grab at their throat or wave their arms. If the trachea remains blocked, their face may turn from bright red to blue.

The body needs oxygen to stay alive. When oxygen can’t reach the lungs and the brain, a person can become unconscious, sustain brain damage, and even die within minutes. That’s what makes choking such a serious emergency.

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