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Choking (cont.)

Choking Causes

Choking is caused when a piece of food or other object gets stuck in the upper airway.

  • In the back of the mouth are two openings. One is the esophagus, which leads to the stomach; food goes down this pathway. The other is the trachea, which is the opening air must pass through to get to the lungs. When swallowing occurs, the trachea is covered by a flap called the epiglottis, which prevents food from entering the lungs. The trachea splits into the left and right mainstem bronchus. These lead to the left and right lungs. They branch into increasingly smaller tubes as they spread throughout the lungs.
  • Any object that ends up in the airway will become stuck as the airway narrows. Many large objects get stuck just inside the trachea at the vocal cords.

In adults, choking most often occurs when food is not chewed properly. Talking or laughing while eating may cause a piece of food to "go down the wrong pipe." Normal swallowing mechanisms may be slowed if a person has been drinking alcohol or taking drugs, and if the person has certain illnesses such as Parkinson's disease.

  • In older adults, risk factors for choking include advancing age, poor fitting dental work, and alcohol consumption.
  • In children, choking is often caused by chewing food incompletely, attempting to eat large pieces of food or too much food at one time, or eating hard candy. Children also put small objects in their mouths, which may become lodged in their throat. Nuts, pins, marbles, or coins, for example, create a choking hazard.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/23/2014

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