There are two types of choking: a partial airway obstruction (mild choking), and a complete airway obstruction (severe choking). The second scenario is the one that could be fatal if not acted on immediately.

ER24’s Johannesburg West Branch Manager Raeesah Boomgaard share advice on how to handle both. If you suspect someone is choking, ask them if they are. They’ll usually answer with a nod. Other signs and symptoms include coughing, struggling for breath and holding their neck. Boomgaard says if a patient isn’t immediately showing signs of choking, the last of these signs is the most obvious indicator that a person is struggling. “The patient may also start turning red and eventually blue as they use up the reserve oxygen in their body,” she says, adding they also can become unconscious. 

Take immediate action

Once choking has been established, act immediately. “The first thing you need to do is encourage the person to cough,” says Boomgaard. Coughing can clear the obstruction in the throat, especially if it’s a liquid that caused the choking. Back blows don’t always work in adults and have the risk of causing the object to move down further and therefore the best option is the Heimlich manoeuvre. Also known as abdominal thrusts, this move gets its name from an American doctor named Henry Heimlich, who is also credited with creating it. Most major medical organisations, including the American Heart Association, American Red Cross and the European Resuscitation Council, include this move in their resuscitation protocols.

How to do a Heimlich manoeuvre

  • Get the person to stand up
  • Position yourself behind the person
  • Place your arms around their waist
  • Make a fist and place it just above the navel, thumb side in
  • Grab the fist with your other hand and push it inward and upward at the same time. Perform five of these abdominal thrusts
  • Repeat until the object is expelled and the person can breathe or cough on their own

Once the choking incident has been resolved, monitor their vital signs, such as heart rate and breathing. When medics arrive, they will observe the patient further and check for any trauma to the throat and whether everything that was stuck in their throat was dislodged.

What if I’m alone and start to choke?

Boomgaard says the best way to save yourself is to keep coughing until the item is dislodged. If this takes too long, then the self-applied Heimlich manoeuvre is your next best bet: -     

  • Make a fist and place it just above your navel
  • Grip that fist with the other hand and lean over a hard surface
  • Thrust your fist inwards and upwards as if you were applying it to another person

Call ER24 on 084 124 for real help, real fast, as soon as the item has been dislodged.