What to do if an adult is choking

By Andréa Parent, social media coordinator
Now that some COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in your area, you might be thinking about indulging yourself with delicious dinner at your favourite restaurant. But would you know how to react if your dining companions’ airway – the pathway connecting the mouth and nose to the lungs – became blocked?

Partial choking vs complete choking

There are two types of choking: partial choking and complete choking.
Coughing is the body’s way of clearing the airway, and so it may indicate a partial airway obstruction. A person who is coughing is still able to breathe. Since forceful coughing usually eliminates the obstruction, encourage the person to keep coughing.
Stand by and monitor the person in case further help becomes necessary.  If the person is or becomes too weak to cough, his or her condition will quickly deteriorate into complete choking.
If a choking person is unable to cough forcefully for any reason, call EMS/9-1-1 immediately and monitor the person’s condition closely
Complete choking happens when the airway is completely blocked. When this happens, the person is unable to breathe and is in a life-threatening situation. Immediate first aid is required to remove whatever is blocking the airway.

Know the signs and symptoms of a total obstruction

Look for the following signs and symptoms to determine if the obstruction is complete:
  • Inability to speak, cough, or breathe
  • High-pitched squeaking noises
  • Flushed (red) skin that becomes bluish or paler than normal
  • A look of panic and wide eyes
  • One or both hands on the throat

What to do if the person has a complete obstruction

If you witness any of the previous signs or symptoms, you will need to act fast. Here is what you should do:
  1. If possible, send someone to call EMS/9-1-1 and get an AED, while you care for the person. If you are alone, immediately begin providing care for choking. Shout for help to try to attract the attention of a bystander, but do not delay care by calling EMS/9-1-1 yourself.
  2. Try to dislodge the object by combining any two of the following three options: back blows, abdominal thrusts, and chest thrusts.  Continue alternating between the two chosen methods until the object comes out, the person begins to breathe, or the person becomes unresponsive.
  3. If the choking person becomes unresponsive, lower him or her to the ground as safely as possible and immediately begin CPR, starting with chest compressions.

Most common causes of obstruction in adults

Certain habits increase the risk of obstruction, including:
  • Trying to swallow large pieces of food
  • Eating while talking, laughing, walking, or running
  • Eating too quickly

Tips and tricks to reduce risk of obstruction

The following may reduce the risk of choking in adults:
  • Chewing food well before swallowing
  • Eating slowly and calmly – don’t rush
  • While chewing, avoid talking, laughing, walking or performing any other physical activity
Please note that the information in this article is for information purposes only and does not replace first aid training. Find a first aid course near you.

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