Inhalation of a foreign body is unfortunately quite common, especially in children. It is an accident that occurs when objects get lodged inside the mouth or when bites of food end up in airways, rather than go down the digestive tract. This results in partial or total obstruction, making it difficult or preventing air from passing through. The foreign body proceeds by descending along the airway and tends to stop when the passageway becomes narrower. Its placement varies depending on shape, size, and texture. It is important to recognize this situation, act carefully and in a timely manner. Total obstruction can have serious consequences, even deadly, by causing suffocation.

What are the symptoms associated with the inhalation of a foreign body?

Partial obstruction occurs when a foreign body gets lodged inside the upper respiratory tract, making it difficult for air to pass through. The organism implements a defense mechanism by unleashing coughing reflexes and the victim becomes vigilant, all the while coughing and breathing. In case of total obstruction, the victim is not breathing nor coughing, and becomes cyanotic

What to do

In the case of partial obstruction, the victim should keep coughing and breathing, and it is important to encourage them and reassure them to remain calm.  There is no need to intervene in any way,  as the situation should resolve itself.

In the case of total obstruction, the victim is not breathing and therefore, it is highly important to act quickly and call for help. While waiting for a medical rescue team to arrive, unblocking mechanisms should be implemented on them. Knowing the right (and simple) steps and maneuvers can help relieve obstruction, thus saving the life of the individual in danger. If you do not know the maneuver, caregivers provide telephone assistance while waiting for the medical rescue team to arrive. Abdominal thrusts, also known as the Heimlich maneuver, can be done on any individual except on children younger than one year (a different approach must be taken). 

How to intervene on a child (up to one years old)

If there are visible foreign bodies in the front of the mouth, pulling them out should be done by using a finger folded in a hook. This maneuver should only be done if the object is clearly visible and easily accessible.

The child should be placed on their stomach on your forearm, with their head turned outwards. Your hand should rest on the corresponding leg. Using the other hand, give 5 back blows to the child, pounding their palm near the wrist. The maneuver should be enough to expel the foreign object.

In case this does not work, turn the baby on their back and with your index and middle fingers; deliver 5 pressure blows to their chest, right in the middle between the nipples. Alternate between 5 back blows and 5 pressure blows until the airway is cleared once again. 

How to intervene in adults and children (over the age of one)

In such cases, it is necessary to practice the  Heimlich maneuver. The maneuver itself is not difficult, though it is highly important to execute it in a precise and careful way, in order to avoid risk of further damage.  

 Position yourself standing behind the victim, hugging them and bringing their hands up to their belly. Close your hands into fists and position them one over the other, between the navel and chest.Push down on the victim’s body in the area indicated, in a decisive manner, while directing thrusts upward and downward in depth. Continue to do so until breathing is resumed.

What not to do

Back-slapping” should be avoided. There is no use for it and it can worsen the situation for the victim. Also, groping a foreign body from the mouth using fingers can make it worse, by causing the object to get pushed in deeper.


Disclaimer: The information in this article does not in any way replace the intervention or signs associated with this type of emergency, but rather only provides simple tips as how to keep the situation under control while waiting for a medical rescue team to arrive.