What should you do if someone is choking?

A child choking on food

The risk of choking is highest in older adults and children under 5 years of age. (Getty Images)

There’s a good chance you’ll see someone choke at some point in your life: Choking is the fourth leading cause of accidental death from injury, according to the National Safety Council.

You’ve been warned about the risk of choking since you were young, but would you really know what to do if someone was choking near you? If not, experts say it’s important to learn. “Suffocation occurs when a person’s airway becomes blocked, and inaction unfortunately leads to suffocation and suffocation,” says Dr. Eric Adkins, emergency medical technician at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, told Yahoo Life.

It’s also important to act quickly, says Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., told Yahoo Life. “Sometimes you have minutes or even seconds to restore these airways before permanent damage occurs,” she says. “It’s a scary situation that requires an immediate response.”

Many organizations, including the Red Cross, offer courses on what to do if someone is choking. But if you don’t have time to take a class, or simply know you’ll never get around to it, it’s important to have at least some basic knowledge of what to do in an emergency. Here’s what experts recommend.

First, who is most likely to choke?

“Choking can happen to anyone,” says Dr. However, Zeeshan Khan, an associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, added that children under the age of 5 and older adults are most at risk.

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Children under the age of 4, in particular, are more prone to choking “because they have smaller airways to begin with and aren’t used to dealing with different textures of food,” says Fisher. They’re also “impulsive about what they put in their mouths,” she adds.

In older adults, “swallowing function can change, making people more susceptible to choking attacks,” says Adkins.

Common causes of choking

Choking can occur in a number of situations, but experts say the main causes in children are food, coins, toys and balloons.

In adults, “the most common causes of choking are almost always food,” says Khan. However, he adds, “Older people can have trouble chewing and swallowing, which can lead to choking.”

What to do when a baby chokes

If someone else is around, Fisher recommends asking them to call 911 while you’re trading. And if you are alone, try removing the food first. “Your first attempt will be more life-saving than calling 911 first,” she says.

If a child is under 1 year old, consider holding the baby face down and doing back punches, says Fisher. “That means taking the heel of your hand and aiming between the shoulder blades,” she says. This creates a strong vibration and pressure in the airways, which usually allows the object to be displaced, she says.

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The British Red Cross strongly recommends that you give up to five spanks on the back while holding the baby face down along your thigh, with the head lower than the bottom and supporting the head. If the back punches don’t help, turn the baby over so they’re facing up, place two fingers in the center of their chest just below the nipples, and press down firmly up to five times. This pushes air out of the baby’s lungs and can help clear the blockage, according to the British Red Cross.

If a baby is choking, the British Red Cross recommends giving up to five blows to the back

When a baby is choking, the British Red Cross recommends giving up to five back blows while holding the baby face down. (Getty Images)

What to do if a child chokes

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using the Heimlich maneuver in children who are choking. Again, ask someone to call 911 if they’re available while you take action. You can do this when the child is lying, sitting or standing.

If they’re sitting or standing, position yourself behind them and wrap your arms around their waists, the AAP says. Place the thumb side of your fist in the center of your abdomen, grasp that fist with your free hand, and push inward with quick, upward thrusts. Repeat these jabs until the object is coughed up or the child begins to breathe or cough.

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If the child is unconscious, you should perform what is called a tongue and jaw elevation. To do this, the AAP says you must open their mouth by holding your thumb over their tongue and wrapping your fingers around their lower jaw (this pulls the tongue away from the back of the throat). You may be able to clear the airways this way. If you can see what’s causing the blockage, try to remove it with a sideways flick of your finger – just be careful, as this could push the object down even further.

If the child hasn’t started breathing again, gently tilt the head back and lift the chin, the AAP says. Then place your own mouth over her mouth, pinch her nose and give two breaths lasting one and a half to two seconds. Then return to the Heimlich maneuver. Repeat the steps until the child starts breathing again or help arrives.

What to do if an adult chokes

It’s important for adults to first ask if they’re choking, Adkins says. If they do so, according to the American Red Cross, they will take steps similar to those for a child. Give them five punches on the back, followed by five punches in the stomach if the punches didn’t remove the object.

Repeat this cycle or call 911 if you cannot remove the item.

After the choking episode resolves, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, says Khan. “There can be complications from the episode,” he says.

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