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choking in the unconscious adult

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  Upper airway

Alternative Names 
obstructed airway

Choking in an unconscious adult may occur when the upper airway, usually the throat or windpipe, is blocked by an object or irritation.

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? 
Signs and symptoms of choking in an unconscious adult include:
  • unconsciousness
  • lack of breathing
  • inability to move air in or out of the lungs, even with assistance
What are the causes and risks of the injury? 
Choking is more likely if a person:
  • swallows large, poorly chewed pieces of food
  • drinks too much alcohol
  • wears poorly fitting dentures
  • talks or laughs while eating
What can be done to prevent the injury? 
In many cases, choking can be prevented by:
  • cutting food into small pieces and chewing slowly
  • avoiding laughing and talking while chewing
  • drinking alcohol only in moderation
  • wearing properly fitting dentures
How is the injury recognized? 
An adult who is unconscious as a result of choking will be unresponsive. The rescuer will be unable to push air into the lungs with mouth-to-mouth breathing. Bystanders may report an episode of choking, followed by unconsciousness.

What are the treatments for the injury? 
First aid for an unconscious adult who has choked includes the following:
  • Check for signs of circulation, such as normal breathing, coughing, or movement in response to stimulation.
  • Contact the emergency medical system immediately.
  • Start cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, if the person stops breathing. Use 15 chest compressions for every 2 mouth-to-mouth rescue breaths.
  • If the person starts breathing, place him or her in a side-lying position and monitor closely.
  • Stay with the person until medical help arrives.
What are the side effects of the treatments? 
The chest compressions of CPR can cause vomiting, injuries to internal organs, or broken ribs. Vomiting can be a problem if the vomit is caught in the airway and inhaled into the lungs. There is a possibility that none of the procedures may work, and the person may still choke, remain unconscious, or even die.

What happens after treatment for the injury? 
It is important to obtain medical care from a healthcare professional. Occasionally, an object will enter the lung instead of being expelled. This can cause coughing, wheezing, or aspiration pneumonia.

Author: James Broomfield, MD
Reviewer: Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
Last Updated: 12/08/00
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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