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A choking person's airway may be completely or partially blocked. A complete blockage is an urgent medical emergency. A partial obstruction can quickly become life threatening if the person loses the ability to breathe in and out sufficiently. Without oxygen, permanent brain damage can occur in as little as 4 minutes. Rapid first aid for choking can save a life.
The universal distress signal for choking is grabbing the throat with one or both hands.
DO NOT perform first aid if the person is coughing forcefully and able to speak - a strong cough can dislodge the object on its own.
1. Ask the person:
"Are you choking?"
"Can you speak?"
2. Send someone to call 911 or your local emergency number.
Review Date 2/12/2021
Updated by: Jesse Borke, MD, CPE, FAAEM, FACEP, Attending Physician at Kaiser Permanente, Orange County, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.