First Aid for Choking Adults: Causes, Symptoms and How to Treat Choking Adults

Senior woman is holding her chest

Emergencies can happen here and there. Yet sometimes, if it isn’t your lucky day, you could wind up choking on an apple or see a friend of yours who does. Times like these, you need to call a private ambulance service to be able to reach the nearest emergency room and prevent the situation from escalating.

In any case, if you happen to witness a choking incident or become the unfortunate one to experience it, here are some key things to remember to be able to administer the proper first-aid approach. Learn more about the proper first-aid approach from our CPR first aid course.

What is the first aid treatment for choking adults?

What causes choking in adults?

Choking in adults is not as common as choking in babies, children, or the elderly are. However, while not as fatal as when it happens to infants or elderly people, choking in adults is still considered a true medical emergency. Most of the time, choking can only trigger intense coughing fits and episodes, but if complete airway blockage, it can ultimately take a person’s life. Thinking on your feet and keeping a rational mind is the best course of action to save a life.

While choking cannot be altogether prevented, knowledge of what leads to choking incidents are still helpful. The occurrence of choking in adults less than 75 years of age are triggered by some factors.


adult eating apple

The most common causes of choking in adults are foods that mirror the shape of the pharynx, or the throat. Excellent examples of these foods are banana, gelatinous candies like gummies, and marshmallows. Apples, carrots, hotdogs, and hard candies can also cause choking, as these have strong solid properties and are at times cylindrical and cut in chunks as well.

However, foods like nuts and peanut butter can also trigger choking. Munching out on too many small items like nuts all at once can block the airway since there exists the tendency that you are not able to chew the nuts properly. Peanut butter, on the other hand, is like a marshmallow and can stick to your throat and cause a blockage. 

Being engaged in other activities while eating

Ever heard of the saying, “Don’t talk when your mouth is full”? Apparently, this saying does not only apply in terms of manners. It can also be applied to safety. All too often, eating while talking and laughing can trigger choking incidents as the coordination of your swallowing and breathing lapses with your mouth being engaged in a lot of activities. 

Eating too fast and not chewing food properly can also contribute to choking instances. 

Symptoms of Choking

woman clutching throat

Unlike babies who have trouble communicating what is happening to them, choking adults are far easier to recognize, as they too are aware of what is happening to them. 

Some of the symptoms of choking in adults include coughing or gagging, wheezing, clutching the throat or hand signals pointing to the throat, inability to talk, and a pained expression of panic on their face. In most cases, they can pass out as well. 

Because choking is a life-threatening situation, promptly call in emergency services. But since it can take some time for help to arrive, you will have to handle the situation on your own. In incidents of choking, every minute matters. 

How to treat someone who is choking?

Man Performing heimlich Procedure On Woman

When applying first aid to a choking adult, you need to verify one thing first: are they conscious or unconscious?

What to do if the person choking is conscious?

If a person suffering from complete air blockage remains conscious, deliver 5 sharp blows on the area between their shoulder blades using the heel of your hand. 

If they are still choking after 5 back blows, proceed with performing abdominal thrusts or the Heimlich maneuver. Note that you cannot perform this maneuver on someone who is pregnant or too heavy for you to bear the weight. 

To do the Heimlich maneuver, you must:

  • Stand behind the person and wrap your arms around their waist.
  • Make a clenched fist with one hand and place it on the abdomen, the area below the chest and above the navel.
  • Grab the clenched fist with the other hand.
  • In a swift manner and with enough force, press into the abdomen inward and upward.
  • Do the thrusts for 5 times. 
  • If the blockage still remains, continue delivering the back blows and abdominal thrusts in alternating cycles until the object becomes dislodged, or at least until the person is able to breathe or cough. 

If the person choking is pregnant or overweight, you should perform high abdominal thrusts. Here’s how:

  • Stand behind the person. Instead of the waist, wrap your arms around them. Your hands should be positioned at the base of their breastbone.
  • Deliver an inward and upward thrust quickly.
  • Repeat this until the object comes out. 

Fainted senior woman lying on the ground outside

What to do if the person choking is unconscious?

If the person choking loses consciousness, you need to make sure that they can still breathe by clearing the airway. 

  • Lay the person with their back on the floor and arms to their sides.
  • Perform CPR. The reverberations created by the act of CPR can aid in dislodging the object from the person’s airway. Make sure to check the mouth from time to time. 
  • If you can see the object causing the blockage high in the throat, you can try and reach it out using your finger. Do this carefully as you can end up pushing the blockage down the throat. Do not attempt to do this if the blockage is not really visible in the first place.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to treat choking

Man Performing CPR on Mannequin

Once a person becomes unconscious and unresponsive in the event of choking, you will need to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to them. Doing so not only clears their airway but also aids in dislodging the item that caused the choking. 

Once you call the emergency services, put them on loudspeaker while you perform the following steps on how to administer CPR treatment to a person choking. Relay to the operator what you are doing, and make sure to keep them on the line with you. 

To perform CPR on an unconscious individual who suffers from choking here is what you should do:

  • Lay a person down, with their back to the floor. Make sure that their back is laid on a straight line. 
  • See to it that their head and neck are supported. 
  • Remove clothing to expose their chest. 
  • Open their mouth using your thumb and index finger. The thumb should be placed on the tongue, while the index finger is placed under the chin. 
  • If you see the item that had caused the choking inside their mouth, carefully remove it.
  • If the object is not visible inside the mouth, lift the person’s chin while slightly tilting their head back. This allows the person’s airway to be opened. 
  • Place your ear or cheek near the person’s mouth. While doing this, observe the person’s chest movement for 5 seconds. Look for signs of breathing.
  • If the person is not breathing, maintain the position of the head. Close the person’s nostrils by pinching them with the use of your thumb and index finger. Place your mouth over the person’s mouth, making sure that your mouth tightly covers theirs. Deliver two full breaths slowly, ensuring a pause in-between breaths. 
  • Observe the person’s chest. If it does not rise, slightly reposition the head and give two more breaths. 
  • If after 2 sets of breaths the chest still fails to rise, prepare to deliver CPR with chest compressions. These compressions can aid in removing the blockage which prevents the person from breathing. 
  • To perform chest compressions, place the heel of one hand on the area between the nipples. This is the breastbone. 
  • Stack the heel of your other hand on top of the first hand. 
  • Make sure that your body is positioned directly above your hands so that you can apply enough pressure when performing the chest compressions. 
  • Deliver 30 chest compressions. Each compression should be hard and fast. Let the chest completely rise before proceeding with another press. 
  • Lift the person’s chin using 2 fingers. While doing this, tilt the head by pressing down on the forehead with your other hand.
  • Again, place your ear or cheek near the person’s mouth and nose and look for signs of breathing on their chest movement. 
  • Do chest compressions and rescue breathing steps until the person regains consciousness or at least until emergency help comes. Once the person begins breathing again, have them recover in a safe space.

Severity of Choking

Choking can be classified as mild or severe depending on how much of the person’s airway has been blocked or obstructed. 

Mild Choking 

Mild choking or partial airway obstruction happens when a person choking is still able to speak, cough, cry, or breathe. 

In the case of adults experiencing mild choking, they can very much clear the blockage by themselves through coughing it out. 

Severe Choking

Severe choking or complete airway obstruction happens when a person is not able to speak, cough, cry or breathe. If not treated with immediate care, the person can easily lose consciousness. 

For this, back blows and abdominal thrusts should be performed. 

Complications to take note of

In any emergency case, complications can still arise even if you have done your best in providing aid. 

In choking incidents, it is important to seek urgent medical assistance if you notice these complications. 

  • A coughing fit after choking
  • The feeling that something is still stuck in the throat

A person that has suffered from choking must still be checked by doctors to verify that everything is alright. 

Performing first aid on yourself

Close Up Of Man Demonstrating Heimlich Maneuver

If, in the unlikely event that you are all by yourself and started choking, dial in 911 even if you are unable to speak. 

Back blows are ruled out as you won’t be able to perform it on yourself. However, you can do abdominal thrusts or Heimlich maneuver. This is how you do it:

  • Form a fist and put it on your abdomen, somewhere above the navel.
  • Grab your first with your other hand, and find a hard surface where you can bend over. Ideally, a countertop or a sturdy chair will do. 
  • Thrust your fist inward and upward. 

What you should not do when someone is choking?

Doctor putting his fingers on the mouth of an adult mannequin who is choking

Unless you can see the object inside a choking person’s mouth, do not attempt to put your fingers inside their mouth. While this can only push the item further down their throat, doing so also risks damaging their throat and causing swelling and bacterial infection.

Frequently Asked Questions

Hitting someone on the back is not the same as back blows. Hitting or slapping someone on the back while they are sitting upright is discouraged. Doing so can only trigger the blockage’s move further down the windpipe. There is a proper way to deliver back blows. The person must be leaning forward before you give them back blows.
If the person who is choking is conscious, ask them first if they would like to receive help from you. If the person is unconscious, consent is already implied.
If a person becomes unresponsive while choking, immediately seek medical help. CPR can also be done, starting with chest compressions.

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