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Airway Obstruction

Airway Obstruction Pronunciation: Air-way Ob-struc-tion (ˈer-wā əb-ˈstrək-shən)

Definition: An airway obstruction is a blockage in the respiratory system that prevents the normal flow of air into the lungs, making it difficult or impossible for a person to breathe.

What is Airway Obstruction?


An airway obstruction happens when you can’t move air in or out of your lungs due to a blockage. This can be caused by inhalation of a foreign body, allergic reactions, diseases, or trauma. The obstruction may be partial or complete.

Key Facts About Airway Obstruction:

  • Airway obstruction can be caused by a variety of factors including foreign body aspiration, allergic reactions, trauma, and certain diseases.
  • Symptoms may include difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, and in severe cases, cyanosis (bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen).
  • Treatment involves clearing the obstruction, which can range from simple methods like back blows or abdominal thrusts, to medical interventions such as bronchodilators, epinephrine, or even emergency tracheostomy or intubation.

Understanding Airway Obstruction

Airway obstruction can occur at any age, although certain types are more common in specific age groups. For instance, foreign body aspiration is more common in children due to their tendency to put things in their mouths. In adults, causes might include allergic reactions, trauma, or certain medical conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Treatment for airway obstruction depends on the cause. For instance, if a person is choking on a foreign body, the Heimlich maneuver can be used to dislodge the item. If the obstruction is due to an allergic reaction, medications like epinephrine might be used. In severe cases, a medical procedure to create an airway might be needed.

Prevention is key in avoiding airway obstruction. For children, this includes keeping small items out of their reach. Adults with known allergies might carry an epinephrine auto-injector to treat severe allergic reactions that could lead to airway obstruction.

Frequently Asked Questions About Airway Obstructions

What are the common causes of airway obstruction?

Airway obstruction can be caused by various factors. The common causes include:

  1. Foreign body aspiration: When an object, like food or a small toy, gets stuck in the airway, it can partially or completely block the passage of air.
  2. Allergic reactions: Allergies can cause angioedema, which is the swelling of the airway, leading to restricted airflow.
  3. Asthma attacks: Inflammation and constriction of the airways during an asthma attack can result in airway obstruction and breathing difficulties.
  4. Respiratory infections: Infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia can cause inflammation and excessive mucus production, narrowing the airway.
  5. Trauma to the neck or chest: Accidents or injuries that affect the neck or chest can lead to structural damage or swelling, obstructing the airflow.

Recognizing these common causes of airway obstruction is vital for timely intervention and appropriate management. Prompt action can help ensure proper breathing and prevent potential life-threatening complications.

What are the signs of an airway obstruction?

Signs of an airway obstruction can manifest in various ways and may include:

  1. Difficulty breathing: Individuals experiencing airway obstruction may exhibit labored breathing, struggling to inhale or exhale properly. They may gasp for air or have shallow, rapid breaths.
  2. Wheezing or stridor: Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound that occurs during breathing and is commonly associated with narrowed airways. Stridor, on the other hand, is a harsh, vibrating noise that can be heard during inspiration and suggests upper airway obstruction.
  3. Coughing or choking: Persistent coughing or choking, especially when accompanied by difficulty breathing, may indicate an obstruction in the airway. Coughing can be a reflexive attempt to clear the airway of any obstruction.
  4. Cyanosis: In severe cases of airway obstruction, oxygen deprivation can lead to cyanosis, which is a bluish discoloration of the lips, skin, and nail beds. Cyanosis indicates a lack of sufficient oxygen in the blood.
  5. Agitation or panic: The sensation of being unable to breathe properly can cause significant distress, leading to restlessness, anxiety, or panic in individuals with airway obstruction.

Recognizing these signs promptly is crucial as airway obstruction can quickly escalate into a life-threatening situation. Seeking immediate medical assistance is essential for proper evaluation, diagnosis, and appropriate interventions to alleviate the obstruction and restore normal breathing.

How can I help someone with an airway obstruction?

If you encounter someone experiencing an airway obstruction, it is crucial to act quickly and effectively to assist them. Here are steps to help someone with an airway obstruction:

  1. Assess the severity: Determine the severity of the obstruction. If the person can speak, cough forcefully, or breathe adequately, encourage them to keep coughing to try and dislodge the blockage. However, if they are unable to cough or breathe effectively, immediate action is required.
  2. Perform the Heimlich maneuver: Stand behind the person and wrap your arms around their waist. Make a fist with one hand and place the thumb side just above their navel. Grasp the fist with your other hand and perform inward and upward thrusts, using quick, upward pressure to help expel the object causing the obstruction.
  3. Call for emergency assistance: If the obstruction persists or the person becomes unresponsive, immediately call emergency services for professional help. Stay on the line for guidance and further instructions.
  4. Follow CPR protocols: If the person becomes unresponsive, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) by initiating chest compressions. Position the person on a firm, flat surface, place the heel of one hand on the center of their chest, and interlock your fingers. Administer compressions at a rate of about 100-120 compressions per minute, allowing the chest to fully recoil between each compression.
  5. Use an automated external defibrillator (AED): If an AED is available, follow the prompts and use it as directed. AEDs can assess heart rhythms and deliver an electric shock if necessary, which can help restore normal cardiac function.

Remember, receiving proper training in first aid, CPR, and the Heimlich maneuver is highly recommended. Acting promptly and seeking professional medical help are vital when dealing with an airway obstruction to maximize the chances of a positive outcome.


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  2. WebMD. (n.d.). What to Know About Airway Obstruction. Retrieved from
  3. MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Airway Obstruction. Retrieved from