Choking is a Serious Threat for Children

MUSC Health
April 09, 2020
Toddler eating grapes

It’s Also Preventable With Attention to Detail

Choking is when an object becomes lodged in the throat, preventing air from getting to the lungs. It’s a serious health risk for children and can be fatal.

Seventy-five percent of choking incidents occur in children under the age of three years old as a result of immature chewing abilities and the anatomy of the airway in early childhood. Additionally, young children tend to explore their environment with their mouth, chewing and possibly swallowing inedible objects. Coupled with immature decision-making skills, this puts children at high risk for choking.

How can I prevent my child from choking?

There are several things you can do to prevent choking. Start by child-proofing your home, car and other frequented environments by removing choking hazards. Common choking hazards include food pieces and non-food objects such as coins and small toys. Objects with the ability to completely block the airway by creating an air-tight seal in the airway – grapes, hotdogs or pieces of latex balloons, for example – are most dangerous. When child-proofing your home with choking hazards in mind, there are three things to think about:

  1. Shape – Round objects are most dangerous (marbles, for example).
  2. Size – Extremely small objects can find their way into a child’s lungs (peanuts or sunflower seeds, for example). If a toy is small enough to fit through the middle of a toilet paper roll, it is a choking hazard.
  3. Consistency – Food items that cannot be easily chewed are likely to be swallowed whole.

“My entire medical practice is focused on pediatric Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) and I have children aged two, four, and five, so you could say I’m immersed in pediatrics at work and at home,” says MUSC Health ENT pediatrician Clarice S. Clemmens, M.D. “I’m always thinking about preventative measures when it comes to risks for kids.”

In addition to ensuring that toys and food items are age-appropriate, be sure kids are always supervised. Ask children to sit still and upright when eating and remove toys to ensure they are focused on only one task. Do not allow kids to eat in the car, as the movement can be difficult for their coordination and attention, and it can be difficult to recognize choking from the rear-view mirror. Review these guidelines with each adult responsible for supervision.

“These precautions may seem like common sense, but it’s easy to forget that children are at greater risk for choking,” says Dr. Clemmens. “Suffocation only takes moments and can be prevented with thoughtful attention.”

How can I tell if a child is choking and what should I do?

Coughing or gagging is a common indicator of choking. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to identify choking when the airway is completely blocked because the child can’t cough or make noise. You may notice tearing, reddening in the face or a blank expression and lack of responsiveness. The Heimlich Maneuver (abdominal thrusts) can be used to dislodge an object in an older child’s throat. For infants, a combination of back blows and chest thrusts should be used to dislodge the object. You can learn these maneuvers by taking a basic CPR class. If a child is unresponsive or in distress, call 911 immediately.

If the airway is not completely blocked, but a foreign body remains present, children may present with noisy breathing, coughing or respiratory distress. If you are concerned that a foreign body may exist, please seek medical attention promptly. MUSC Health ENT offers pediatric bronchoscopy (examination of the airway and lungs) and surgery to remove foreign objects if necessary.

MUSC Health ENT would be pleased to assist you or your loved ones. Please give us a call at 843-792-3531 to schedule an appointment with our team. We look forward to meeting you, to help you on your path to a healthy quality of life.

About the Author

MUSC Health

Keywords: ENT, Childrens Health