Better Me
What Should You Do If You Choke While Home Alone?

A colleague of mine at Banner Health told a story about how she started choking, and her daughter had to call 911. Fortunately, she did the Heimlich maneuver on herself and was breathing just fine when the paramedics arrived.

But, this story got me thinking: What would I do if I were in that situation? I don’t know how to do the Heimlich on myself, so would I hope my dogs would run to find help? In reality, they’d see a bird or a rabbit, start running, and I’d be in trouble.

I asked Jasjot Johar, MD, who treats patients in the McKee Medical Center’s Emergency room, for some information on choking.

What is choking?

Choking happens when a foreign body blocks your airway. Dr. Johar explained there are two tubes leading downward from the throat. One of those is the trachea, and it goes into the lungs. The other tube is the esophagus, which goes to the stomach.

“Obviously, the only material that should be going down the trachea into the lungs is air,” said Dr. Johar. “Any food, fluids or anything other than air going down that pipe would be considered very dangerous.”

Dr. Johar explained that the most common food adults choke on is meat – typically, steak or chicken. He also said that, while fish bones can get stuck, they rarely cause someone to choke.

Choking hazards are slightly different for children, however.

“Balloons, batteries, coins and toys are all things that I have seen children choke on,” Dr. Johar said. “And, of course, certain foods like grapes, peanuts and hot dogs are notorious for causing choking in children.”

You may have heard you cannot talk when you’re choking. This is partially true. Dr. Johar explained that a completely blocked airway would make you unable to speak, but you can talk with a partially blocked airway. Just because you can talk doesn’t mean everything is OK, warned Dr. Johar.

“If you completely obstruct the airway, you are likely to pass out fairly quickly, and within minutes, this can become irreversible,” said Dr. Johar.

What should you do if you’re choking?

So, if you’re home alone and you start choking, what should you do?

Dr. Johar said the first thing to do is to call 911. Even if you’re able to clear the obstruction, it’s not a bad idea to have a paramedic check you out to make sure everything is OK.

After calling 911, try clear the obstruction.

“Trying to forcefully cough may expel the object. Do not try to reach into the throat or sweep the throat from above as that may actually push something down further,” said Dr. Johar.

If coughing doesn’t work, Dr. Johar says you can do the Heimlich on yourself. The good news is the basic technique is the same. Dr. Johar said to place one fist just below the rib cage and use the other hand to thrust upward and inward. Also, check out this visual representation of how to do the Heimlich on yourself.

Choking is serious business, and Dr. Johar recommends having things checked out if you’ve recently had a choking episode.

“Choking is almost always a sign of some mechanical issue involving swallowing or the airway,” said Dr. Johar. “Even if you are able to cough the object out and do not need to come to the hospital right away, following up with your physician is highly recommended.”

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