Choking Overview

Although choking can occur at any age, babies and young children are especially at risk. Choking is a life-threatening emergency caused by a blockage (obstruction) in or by compression (constriction) of a respiratory passageway (airway).

Choking interferes with breathing and prevents oxygen from reaching the brain and lungs. Choking requires immediate medical attention—without oxygen, severe brain damage or death can occur in as few as 4 minutes.

Babies and young children are at increased risk for choking for several reasons, including the following:

  • Children tend to put small objects into their mouths.
  • Until around the age of 6, children do not have all of their teeth (e.g., molars), which may prevent them from chewing food properly.
  • Because children's airways are narrower than adults, small objects can become lodged and block the airways easier.
  • Young children may have difficulty sitting still during meals and often talk or laugh while eating.

Incidence and Prevalence of Choking

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 17,000 children 14 years of age and younger are treated for choking each year in the United States. About half of all choking episodes in children are related to food products, and half are associated with other objects. More than 10 percent of children who receive emergency care for choking require additional treatment and hospitalization.

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

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 04 Sep 2015