Imagine the scene: you’re home alone and tuned into your favorite comedy show on TV, when suddenly you’re caught by a belly laugh. A chunk of pepperoni from the pizza you’re eating gets caught in your throat, and it blocks your airway. You can’t breathe, and there’s no one around to help. So what can be done? Well, there’s a simple trick you can perform, and it could just save your life.
Sadly, dying by choking is a surprisingly common occurrence in the United States. In 2017 it was actually the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death, according to the National Safety Council. And alarmingly, it can come about from something as trivial as swallowing a piece of pizza the wrong way.
What’s more, of the more than 5,000 people who died from choking two years earlier in 2015, over half were over the age of 74. Part of the risk comes from living alone, you see, potentially without anyone to help at the crucial moment. And it’s not just pizzas you need to worry about: other factors, such as dentures and difficulty swallowing, can also lead to such an occurrence.
In the U.K., meanwhile, a child dies every month from choking, and hundreds more need hospital treatment for it, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. So, with the clear danger that such a threat poses to us, what can be done?
Thankfully, first aid professionals have developed special techniques to help if choking occurs and there’s nobody around to help. And so, if you ever find yourself in a medical emergency with no one there to assist you, take on board this simple advice. It could save your life one day, after all.
Before we discover this neat trick, we should first examine exactly how choking works. As most of us know, it is the result of air being prevented from entering the lungs. Whether by the swelling of tissue in the throat, strangulation or from being blocked by a foreign object, if air can’t flow freely into these organs, they will be deprived of oxygen.
When someone starts to choke, they may have trouble speaking or struggle to shout for help. Breathing will be strained and may be accompanied with wheezing or gasping, too. Plus, sufferers may experience severe retching, coughing or gurgling.
If a choking victim is unable to verbally communicate, visual clues become of paramount importance for anyone trying to help. The person may start grabbing their mouth or throat, for instance, or try to make themselves throw up by sticking their fingers down their throat. Then, if they’ve been starved of oxygen for too long, they may turn blue or lose consciousness.
Yes, when the airways become partially or fully blocked, the lungs won’t receive enough oxygen, which causes oxygen deprivation. The good news is that the blood stream and lungs are able to retain enough oxygen to survive for a few minutes when a person stops breathing. However, a lack of it can also lead to other problems.
You see, if a person’s oxygen supply is cut off for three minutes or more, the brain can become irreparably damaged. And if the supply is not restored within six to eight minutes, the victim will likely die. So, when your airways become blocked, it’s clearly important to act quickly and clear the obstruction as soon as possible.
As we explored earlier, choking fatalities are particularly common among elderly individuals, but very young children are at risk, too. The most likely cause is food, with more malleable food stuffs posing an especially high threat as choking hazards.
Yes, risky types of food are often those that can adapt their shape to that of the pharynx – the part of the throat that sits behind the mouth and nasal cavity. These include gelatinous candy, marshmallows and bananas, which can all block the flow of oxygen to the lungs when ingested in the wrong way.
Other foods that are commonly known to cause choking are sausages and hot dogs, seeds, nuts and peanut butter, hard candy, whole grapes, apples and raw carrots. Also, young children are particularly susceptible to choking on improperly broken down food, often because their teeth haven’t fully developed yet.
However, for children, choking hazards can be found beyond food. Young kids in particular are at risk of swallowing other everyday objects, because they tend to explore their surroundings by placing things in their mouths. Therefore, items such as toys or coins can be particularly dangerous for youngsters.
Among the children’s toys that pose a threat of choking are small balls and marbles. That’s because these little objects can entirely obstruct an infant’s air passage. However, the most common cause of choking death among children is reportedly the ingestion of latex balloons. So what makes these hazards so risky for minors?
Well, a child’s air passage is narrower than an adult’s, as it has not yet fully formed. And so smaller items have the ability to block a minor’s airway – much more easily than that of an adult. What’s more, a young kid may struggle to muster up a cough strong enough to dislodge any obstruction in their throat, so they can be deprived of oxygen for longer.
For adults, meanwhile, food is the leading cause of choking deaths. However, other factors may increase the risk of an individual dying in this manner, such as alcohol consumption, medications that are known to cause drowsiness or even a combination of the two.
What’s more, certain medical conditions may also increase the likelihood of choking. If the brain has been affected by Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s or a stroke, for example, functions such as chewing, swallowing and coughing can become impaired. And if an adult lives alone, help may be unavailable in an emergency.
However, even elderly individuals living in the safety of a care home are at risk. In England and Wales, 68 residents die every year from choking-related medical issues, according to the charity Stay Safe. But regardless of who is most likely to be affected, the statistics on choking are alarmingly high.
In fact, online data portal Statista reported that the chance of experiencing a fatal food-related choking incident in the U.S. is roughly one in 2,696. To put that into perspective, you have a a higher chance of choking to death from food than of being accidentally shot or dying in a plane crash. So, with this in mind, it may be useful to know how to help someone facing such a danger.
There are several techniques that can be administered to someone who is choking, and the good news is that no specialist training is required to perform them. These protocols include methods that are endorsed by the American Red Cross and American Heart Association, with each technique involving a number of stages, each of which increasingly apply more pressure.
The first step, the American Red Cross says, is to encourage the individual to cough if they are conscious. And while the victim is doing this, they should breathe through their nose to ensure air gets to the lungs. If coughing isn’t possible or not working, though, stage two is to slap the back of the sufferer forcefully, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Apparently, the choker should lean forward, while the other person administers blows to their back. Using the heel of the hand, the slaps should be forceful and land between the victim’s shoulder blades. Care is required, mind you, because if the individual is struck in the wrong place, there’s a risk that the object or food could become further lodged.
If coughing or back blows don’t work, however, we move onto phase three. At this stage, the Heimlich Maneuver – or abdominal thrusts – should be performed. To do this, you must stand behind the victim and reach around to place a clenched fist on their abdomen. Then, apply pressure in an inward and upward motion, which should create enough force to dislodge any obstruction in the airway.
Of course, these methods presume that there is somebody around to help the victim. But what if you find yourself home alone, and the unfortunate happens? What do you do if there’s no one around to administer these techniques on you? Well, fortunately, a method has been developed to assist you in a choking situation if you’re by yourself.
Jeff Rehman is a firefighter and paramedic from the Denver, Colorado area. He has been a CPR and basic life support instructor since 1990. And in June 2012 he uploaded a video to YouTube demonstrating a technique to dislodge obstructions in the airways in the event of choking when no one is around to help. Read carefully, because this may just save your life.
In the video, Rehman explains, “I’ve noted over those years that there is no real effective means for somebody to rescue themselves should they be choking, and nobody is there to help them. So, we came up with something that actually works pretty well.” Interestingly, the origins of this technique are rooted outside of medicine.
Rehman continues, “The maneuver you’re about to see came from the years I was a boxer back in the ’80s. It was something my coach taught me in order to toughen up my abdominal muscles.” And remarkably, the paramedic subsequently realized that the method could also be applied to his life-saving work.
In the YouTube clip, which has been viewed more than a staggering 9 million times, Rehman goes on to demonstrate the life-saving maneuver. He says of the technique that he learned as a boxer, “I figured that there was a better use for it, so I applied it to my years as a paramedic.”
So, Rehman recommends that in the event of choking alone, an individual should get onto their knees and put the upper part of their body into a push-up position. But the idea is not to lower yourself to the ground. In fact, what happens next is a movement that generates enough force as to recreate the impact of an abdominal thrust.
With the individual on their knees, then, and the upper part of their body in the push-up position, they should fling their arms over their head. This may sound counter-intuitive; after all, without your arms to stop your fall, you’ll inevitably careen towards the floor. But as Rehman demonstrates, that’s exactly what needs to happen.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Rehman’s technique is a last resort; the choking victim either cannot breathe or is rapidly losing the ability to do so. Therefore, although deliberately crashing to the ground isn’t something that typically feels natural, in such an extreme situation, this maneuver could potentially make all the difference.
Rehman explains, “You want your arms to come up completely from underneath you, [so that you’re] landing on your chest and belly.” The firefighter demonstrates the move, and as he hits the ground there is an audible expulsion of air from his body. And though the technique looks odd, this is the exact effect that you want to achieve.
Rehman continues in the video, “Now, if you heard that, you could hear just how much air was moving northward.” You see, the paramedic is referring to the sudden gush of air that was audibly expelled from his lungs as he hit the floor. He adds, “That should be enough to dislodge just about anything [from] someone whose airway is blocked.”
However, it’s crucial to note that Rehman’s maneuver isn’t recommended for someone who is pregnant. In that circumstance, the American Heart Association suggests using a “chest thrust” instead. Apparently, this is similar to the abdominal thrust, but rather the hands should be placed at the base of the breastbone.
Another handy thing to note is that abdominal thrusts can self-administered, too. To do this, make a fist with your hand, and place it thumb-side down between your ribs and belly button. Then, with your other hand placed on top, press your fist as hard as possible into the affected area – and this should force any air in your lungs out through the windpipe, clearing the obstruction.
If you’re at home alone and start choking, there’s of course one other crucial thing you should do: call the emergency services. Ideally, this should happen from a landline. In the United States, the emergency services will automatically send help even if you can’t speak, according to Men’s Health. Plus, in some places, technology exists to trace the location of mobile phone calls, too.
Dr. Richard Bradley, who sits on the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, told Men’s Health in 2017 that victims should visit A&E even when the obstruction is cleared. That’s because it’s possible that food might have been inhaled into the lungs, which could cause problems. Furthermore, any self-administered abdominal thrusts may have resulted in internal damage.
However, this all being said, the very best solution to choking is prevention. Remain aware of what you are eating, then, and take care to chew your food thoroughly in manageable bites. Moreover, it’s wise to limit the consumption of alcohol, as this can increase the risk of choking, as we already know.
Bradley explained, “Drinking changes your perception of when food is adequately chewed, so you tend to swallow sooner. Also, the muscles in your throat aren’t as coordinated as when you’re sober.” But, he concluded, “You could choke on a lozenge. The best thing is to stay aware as you’re eating and know what you would do in an emergency situation.”
But of course, choking isn’t the only everyday danger that we need to be afraid of. Drowning, for example, is another common fear for lots of people – one that can be all the more terrifying if no one’s around to help you. Thankfully, there’s a simple method that may help you should you find yourself in such a situation. And who better to give this life-saving advice than an ex-navy SEAL?