Signs and Symptoms of Choking

A child who is choking often appears panicked and may wave his or her arms or grab at his or her throat. Older children may hold the neck with one or both hands, which is the universal sign for choking. Signs and symptoms of choking include struggling to breathe (gasping), coughing, gagging, and bluish lips or skin.

If a choking child can cry, speak, or cough forcibly, the airway is partially blocked. In many instances, the child will dislodge the obstruction by coughing or gagging. However, if the child cannot cry, speak, or cough forcibly; has a high-pitched voice or noisy breathing (wheezing); or changes from red to blue in color, the airway may be completely blocked and immediate medical treatment is necessary. The standard rescue procedure for choking in children over the age of 1 and adults is called the Heimlich maneuver.

Complications of choking, which often develop quickly (in as few as 4 minutes) and may cause death, include the following:

  • Brain damage (caused by reduced blood flow to the brain resulting in a lack of oxygen)
  • Collapsed lung (may occur when air flow through one of the bronchi is completely obstructed)
  • Loss of consciousness (caused by reduced blood flow to the brain)
  • Pneumonia (may occur when small particles containing bacteria remain in the respiratory tract and enter the lungs)

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

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 04 Sep 2015