Most of us know what it’s like to be enjoying a nice meal when suddenly, you take too large of a bite and your food goes down the wrong pipe, causing some coughing and possible throat irritation. If you’re lucky, the coughing and discomfort won’t last long — but sometimes, these incidents result in choking, which often calls for more serious medical attention.
Choking causes over 100,000 ER visits annually, and it’s a leading cause of death in children and individuals over 65. To prevent serious and even fatal consequences from choking it’s essential that providers keep their patients informed about common household choking hazards — especially, the risks for children — and that they understand the proper airway management techniques and equipment to use on patients who are choking.
Choking hazards for children
A choking hazard is any object that could be caught in an individual’s throat, blocking the airway and making it difficult or impossible to breathe. Food is a common choking hazard for children because they often don’t chew their food well and try to swallow it whole. The likelihood of a child choking is even greater when they are walking while eating or eating in a moving vehicle.
The most dangerous foods for children are ones that are round and hard. Children aged 4 or younger are particularly at risk for choking with these foods:
- Hot dogs
- Nuts and seeds
- Chunks of meat or cheese
- Whole grapes
- Hard, gooey or sticky candy
- Chunks of peanut butter
- Raw vegetables
- Chewing gum
There are several other possible choking hazards to be aware of as children begin to crawl and put more objects in their mouths. Small objects that you normally wouldn’t notice are significant choking hazards to watch out for, including:
- Latex balloons (These are particularly dangerous because latex is smooth and can conform to a child’s throat, blocking the airway and making it impossible to breathe.)
- Toys with small parts
- Pen or marker caps
- Small balls
- Medicine syringes
- Hair barrettes and beads
- Arts and crafts supplies (rhinestones, buttons, etc.)
A helpful tool that parents and guardians can keep around the house to test for possible choking hazards is a small parts tester, or choke tube. If an object fits in the choke tube, then it’s too small for children 3 years of age or younger to play with.
Choking hazards for adults
Young children are not the only ones susceptible to choking, though, as there are various choking hazards that endanger adults on a daily basis. These include:
- Drinking alcohol (can reduce judgment and increase choking risk)
- Talking while eating
- Eating by the handful (putting too much into the mouth at once)
- Big bites
- Texturally challenging foods (foods that are overly chewy, dry or viscous, such as bagels, peanut butter, overcooked chicken and thick pretzels)
Adults can avoid some of these hazards by developing more mindful eating practices, hydrating regularly while eating and not multitasking while eating.
Airway management challenges during choking
There are various factors that impact an EMS provider’s ability to perform airway management on a choking patient. Lodged objects during choking can cause bleeding in the airway, making it harder to visualize the airway. Providers must be able to clearly see the patient’s upper airway and oral cavity before they begin suctioning.
Providers should be mindful of dental work — particularly dentures — since these can loosen and cause additional trauma during choking. Physical trauma from choking can lead to suction-related injuries if the right-sized equipment isn’t used (the suction catheter should be less than 50% of the size of the internal diameter of the endotracheal tube), or the urgency of the situation may lead to a provider rushing or making choppy movements.
Certain precautions should also be taken to avoid biohazards, which are dangerous for both EMS providers and patients. To avoid dangerous fluids during suctioning, providers should always wear a mask, safety goggles and gloves, never reuse suction catheters and ensure there are enough variously sized catheters in their kit.
The right equipment to get the job done
Suctioning is critical for clearing an obstructed airway. When small objects are lodged in the respiratory tract, portable suction units may be effective for removing the objects, and then using an advanced airway afterward to clear any blood, sputum or vomit.
To remain prepared for any choking scenario, EMS providers should incorporate equipment packing and maintenance into their training routines and include a small portable suction unit in their trauma or tactical bag so it’s always available.
SSCOR’s S-SCORT III Portable Suction Unit and VX-2 Portable Suction Device are specifically designed to perform suctioning on patients who are choking or suffering from airway obstructions. Learn more about SSCOR’s EMS products and how they may be beneficial for you and your team.