Causes of Choking

The most common cause for choking is a blockage (obstruction) in the airway (called the windpipe or trachea).

During breathing, air that is taken in through the nose and mouth travels through the trachea, into the bronchial tubes (bronchi), and to the lungs. The trachea shares an opening in the back of the throat with the esophagus, which is the muscular organ through which food travels from the mouth to the stomach. During swallowing, a flap of cartilage, called the epiglottis, normally covers the opening of the trachea to prevent food or liquid from entering the airway. If the epiglottis does not close quickly enough, small objects or food can be drawn into the airway, blocking the flow of air into the lungs and causing choking.

When the airway is partially obstructed, coughing often removes the blockage. However, objects of a certain size and shape can completely obstruct the trachea or one of the bronchi, resulting in a life-threatening emergency.

Strangulation (constriction or compression of the airway) and suffocation (smothering that interferes with breathing) can cause choking. In babies and young children, unsafe bedding (e.g., cribs, blankets), clothing with drawstrings, toys (e.g., mobiles, crib gyms), and cords from blinds and drapes are common causes for strangulation and suffocation.

Medical conditions can cause choking or increase the risk for choking in children. These conditions include the following:

  • Asthma (causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways)
  • Bronchiolitis (inflammation of the bronchioles [small branches of the bronchial tubes])
  • Cleft palate (congenital condition that results in an abnormal passageway in the roof of the mouth that connects the mouth and nose)
  • Epiglottitis (inflammation of the epiglottis)
  • Febrile seizure (caused by fever)
  • Severe croup (caused by a virus; results in a barking cough and difficulty breathing)

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 04 Sep 2015