As the fourth leading cause of accidental death in the United States, choking is an alarmingly serious incident that requires immediate attention. Speed is of the essence. If someone around you begins to choke, you must be ready to intervene immediately.
Your first aid certification requires you to know what to do when a person is choking. Hands-on practice for these methods is difficult, but staying familiar with the essential steps could save a life. Here’s a quick refresher on what to do when someone chokes.
Signs of Choking
Symptoms of choking tend to be universal:
- Clutching the throat
- Uncontrollable coughing or wheezing
- Inability to speak (this indicates the airway is completely blocked)
- Loss of consciousness
Clutching the throat is known as the universal sign that someone is choking. This is the most important symptom to watch for.
Partially Blocked Airway
Sometimes the foreign body in the airway is small enough that the person is able to partially breathe or even make sounds. The situation is still serious, but likely easier to resolve. Lean the victim forward and encourage them to cough to dislodge the blockage. Have them spit out the foreign object and double-check that the airway is now clear. If coughing alone doesn’t work, it’s time for more serious measures.
How to Treat Severe Choking
For severe cases of choking, where the object is firmly lodged and/or entirely blocking the airway, physical intervention is needed. Stand behind the victim and have them lean slightly forward as you support them chest with one hand. With the heel of your free hand, deliver up to five hard blows between their shoulder blades. Check if this dislodged the foreign object. If they’re still choking, move on to the Heimlich maneuver.
To perform the Heimlich maneuver, also known as abdominal thrusts, stand behind the victim and wrap your arms around their waist, still leaning them forward. Grasp your fist in your other hand and place it right above their belly button. Pull your fists inwards and upwards sharply up to five times. This strategy provides more thrust than back blows alone and is more likely to clear the victim’s airway. NEVER give abdominal thrusts to pregnant women or infants–this can severely injure them. Deliver back blows and gentle chest compressions for a baby, and position your firsts over the sternum for a pregnant woman.
If neither of these strategies work, call 911 or have someone nearby call. Continue switching between back blows and abdominal thrusts until paramedics arrive and can take over. If the victim loses consciousness, begin CPR and keep it up until help arrives.
Pro Tip: Just like CPR, a correctly performed Heimlich maneuver will likely leave the victim with heavy bruising and possibly even broken ribs. Don’t worry about these minor injuries during an emergency. Saving a life is more important.
Be Ready to Save a Life
Choking prevents a person from breathing, cutting off oxygen to the brain and easily leading to death without quick intervention. Learning to recognize and react to the signs of choking could save someone’s life. Review what to do and be ready to intervene if someone needs your help.
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