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Choking, Gagging & Coughing: What’s the Difference?

April 24, 2019

Difference Between Choking, Gagging & Coughing

One of the most common questions we hear from caregivers has to do with knowing when to act if they suspect a person is choking. It’s not always as easy to recognize choking as you might think, so let’s break it down carefully.

  • Choking: The National Safety Council defines choking as “the inhalation of food or other objects obstructing breathing.” In layman’s terms, it means getting something stuck in your throat so it blocks breathing. The blockage can be “partial," where some air can still get through, or “complete,” meaning no air can get through at all. Commonchoking causesinclude food, drinks and small household objects. You can learn more aboutwhatexactlyis chokingin this blog post.
  • Gagging: Gagging is a spasm or contraction of the back of the throat triggered by an object touching this sensitive area. It’s a reflex that can be hard to control for babies, kids, elderly people and some people with conditions that affect the ability to swallow. This natural reflex helpsprevent choking — it’s not the same as choking. That said, it’s not uncommon for parents of new babies to confuse the two when they see their infants gagging and having trouble swallowing.
  • Coughing: When we cough, we rapidly expel air from our lungs, usually as an involuntary reaction to some kind of foreign stimulant such as mucus, fluid or other particles. Coughing and choking can occur in conjunction, but coughing typically means there is only a “partial” obstruction and that air is still able to flow through the airway. Coughing also is a natural defense that can push an object out of an airway, so it’s best to let a coughing person keep on coughing to get that blockage out.

If you are a caregiver who is concerned about choking, it’s important to learn the difference between these three behaviors. Here are some tips worth considering:

  • Coughing and gagging are loud, while choking is silent. A person who is coughing or gagging on something caught in the airway is going to have a loud, dramatic scene, which is one of the reasons caregivers feel the need to react. Choking, on the other hand, means no air is getting through, so the victim is not able to make a sound. If the person is coughing or gagging loudly, let them continue, as that may clear the airway. If they fall silent at any point and are unable to speak, it’s time to take first-aid measures.
  • When someone is choking, gagging or coughing, never try to reach into the mouth to pull out the food or object. More often than not, this pushes the object further into the airway and can impede our natural defenses.
  • Act fast, but remain calm. This particular piece of advice sounds easy on paper but can be tough in an emergency. If you believe someone may be choking and they are old enough to answer you, ask them, “Are you choking?” Time is precious if a person’s airway is blocked, so your next steps are to call 911 (or ideally have another person call) and begin first-aid treatments, such as using the innovative Dechoker device. It’s critical to stay calm during this time so as not to panic the victim further and so that you perform at your best. Planning and preparing before an emergency can help you act quickly and confidently when the time comes.
If you are a caregiver, we invite you to learn more aboutchoking preventionand first aid by reading the other posts here on our blog. You can also learn more about our anti-choking device, the Dechoker, and why we think it should be in every family first-aid kit.

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