The panic that grips you when a drink goes down the ‘wrong way’ or a piece of food becomes stuck in your airway can be truly horrifying. Most of us will know how it feels to have our life flash before our eyes in those moments before we manage to cough and wheeze the blockage out.
And we panic for a good reason – choking killed 60 people in Australia in 2015 (source). Many more calls for help are received through emergency services and luckily people do survive. The most at risk for choking are young children (babies can even choke on milk) and the elderly, with choking the second highest cause of preventable death in aged care (source).
Some of the main causes of choking are:
• food (causes up to 2/3 of choking cases) that hasn’t been chewed properly (source)
• toys, toy parts, batteries, coins, buttons, magnets
As a bystander, it can be just as terrifying to watch someone struggling for breath as they cough and splutter right in front of you. You want to help but without the right training you could end up making it worse. Most of the time choking can be resolved either by the individual themselves or with assistance from a bystander.
We’ve prepared some choking first aid tips for you, starting with what NOT to do.
1. Don’t ask them if they’re ok – if they’re struggling to breath they are not ok. Instead ask them if they are choking, as they may be suffering from something else (e.g. asthma), and you will then be able to provide them the best type of First Aid assistance. The way they respond will let you know if it is a partial obstruction (they can speak) or full obstruction (they will not be able to speak at all – will shake their head).
2. Don’t attempt to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre (i.e. a big thrust to the abdominal area) as it can break ribs and damage internal organs
3. Don’t put your fingers in their mouth – they may bite you accidentally and it could further lodge the object in the trachea.
4. Don’t start CPR by giving breaths if they become unconscious – pushing on the chest with compressions first may push the object out as muscles relax when a casualty becomes unconscious.
5. Don’t pick up the child and turn them upside down
It always alarms us how many people will try each of the above Don’ts, particularly the myth of the Heimlich manoeuvre. Just another reason not to take your First Aid advice from movies and TV!
We all know how much babies love to put tiny objects in their mouths from the second they can grasp. While most parents do baby-proof their homes and remove all tiny objects, it is impossible to keep an eye on babies 24/7 and their eyes often spot items we don’t notice.
This video explains what to do for choking first aid:
It is quite difficult to gauge the right amount of pressure and timing for the back blows and chest thrusts if you’ve never done a First Aid course before, particularly when it comes to babies. You may be surprised at the pressure needed, which is why all parents should undertake parent specific First Aid training at least once, but it’s even better to do it approaching the birth of each baby. Most parents will be afraid of hurting their child so might be worried about doing back blows or chest thrusts, but if you don’t know what to do you will feel more helpless and guilt stricken.
Unaware of the risks, kids will put just about anything in their mouths as part of their journey of discovery through life. Here’s a few tips to help parents and carers:
You can pretty much choke on anything you eat or drink, so there is no specific food to ‘avoid’ to keep you in the clear. It is more the techniques to follow that will help prevent choking:
The elderly are at a greater risk for choking as their mouths can be very dry, meaning less saliva is available to help guide food down. In addition to the above points for adults:
We’re sure everyone agrees choking is mostly avoidable if we all follow appropriate precautions and learn the correct choking First Aid techniques. Our loved ones deserve the comfort of knowing there will be someone at hand to help save their life if they ever run into trouble while choking.