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Blockage of upper airway

Airway obstruction - acute upper

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Blockage of the upper airway occurs when the upper breathing passages become narrowed or blocked, making it hard to breathe. Areas in the upper airway that can be affected are the windpipe (trachea), voice box (larynx), or throat (pharynx).

Causes

The airway can become narrowed or blocked due to many causes, including:

Symptoms

Symptoms vary, depending on the cause. But some symptoms are common to all types of airway blockage. These include:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will do a physical examination and check the airway. The provider will also ask about the possible cause of the blockage.

Tests are usually not necessary, but may include:

Treatment

Treatment depends on the cause of the blockage.

  • Objects stuck in the airway may be removed with special instruments.
  • A tube may be inserted into the airway (endotracheal tube) to help with breathing.
  • Sometimes an opening is made through the neck into the airway (tracheostomy or cricothyrotomy).

If the obstruction is due to a foreign body, such as a piece of food that has been breathed in, doing abdominal thrusts or chest compressions can save the person's life.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Prompt treatment is often successful. But the condition is dangerous and may be fatal, even when treated.

Possible Complications

If the obstruction is not relieved, it can cause:

  • Brain damage
  • Breathing failure
  • Death

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Airway obstruction is often an emergency. Call 911 or the local emergency number for medical help. Follow instructions on how to help keep the person breathing until help arrives.

Prevention

Prevention depends on the cause of the upper airway obstruction.

The following methods may help prevent an obstruction:

  • Eat slowly and chew food completely.
  • Do not drink too much alcohol before or while eating.
  • Keep small objects away from young children.
  • Make sure dentures fit properly.

Learn how to clear a foreign body from the airway using a method such as abdominal thrusts.

References

Reardon RF, Mason PE, Clinton JE. Basic airway management and decision making. In: Roberts JR, ed. Roberts & Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 3.

Rose E. Pediatric respiratory emergencies: upper airway obstruction and infections. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 167.

Thomas SH, Goodloe JM. Foreign bodies. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 53.

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    Review Date: 7/2/2017

    Reviewed By: Jesse Borke, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, Attending Physician at FDR Medical Services / Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Buffalo, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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