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Is There an Increased Choking Risk with Down Syndrome?

May 10, 2019

Choking and Down Syndrome

Among the many challenges people with Down syndrome face on a daily basis, one of the most fundamental is with eating and swallowing. Difficulties can start in infancy, when babies have a hard time nursing or bottle feeding, and continue into childhood and even adulthood. Unfortunately, these problems can cause malnutrition and even put the victim at an increased choking risk.

Here, we take a look at why Down syndrome causes these problems, what caregivers can do to alleviate them, and how to prevent and treat choking.

Down Syndrome & Dysphagia

Difficulty eating and swallowing is known as dysphagia, and more than 50% of children with Down syndrome showed signs of dysphagia and eating difficulties in a recent study. This is for a number of reasons, as Down syndrome can cause gastrointestinal defects, dental problems, airway defects, low muscle tone and any number of other conditions that can affect chewing and swallowing.

When a person is unable to swallow smoothly, there are a few major risks:

  • Malnutrition: Even people who have no problems eating often have poor nutrition, so imagine how difficult proper nutrition would be to manage for a person who cannot swallow easily. Dehydration is also a risk if swallowing liquids is difficult. Malnutrition and dehydration in youth can lead to growth problems.
  • Choking: Swallowing problems can turn deadly in the form of choking, when food blocks a person’s airway and prevents oxygen from flowing.
  • Aspiration: Similar to choking, in aspiration food or liquid gets stuck in the airway where it doesn’t belong, but instead of getting trapped and blocking air, it travels into the lungs. There, it can cause inflammation and pneumonia.

Dysphagia Prevention

Parents and caregivers of people with Down syndrome should work with their medical teams to determine whether swallowing is a problem. Diagnostic tests can include observation and imaging studies. If your child is at risk, here are some steps you can take:

  • Work with specialists to maintain lung health and nutrition. Because malnutrition and aspiration are such high risks, your medical team should include a pulmonologist and a nutritionist. Regular checks with the pulmonologist are wise to watch for signs of inflammation or infection. Follow the nutritionist’s advice about preparing foods that are easy to swallow and full of nutrients.
  • Maintain good oral and dental care. Dental abnormalities are common for Down syndrome patients, so regular dentist visits are important, as is developing good dental habits at home like brushing teeth and flossing.
  • Follow good eating habits. The risk of choking and aspiration goes way up when any people, whether or not they have Down syndrome, are lying down or are distracted. Model good eating behaviors with your family, such as only eating while sitting upright at the table, fully chewing food and avoiding distractions at meal and snack time.

Preparing for Choking Emergencies

Lastly, in addition to prevention measures, caregivers of people with Down syndrome should learn about first-aid treatments for choking. The common standards of care are a combination of back slaps and abdominal thrusts, also known as the Heimlich maneuver.

We believe that any family with a person who is at a high risk of choking should also add another tool to your first-aid kit: The Dechoker. Made in sizes for toddlers, children and adults, this innovative suction device can clear a choking victim’s airway in just seconds. It’s extremely easy to use, and it can be used on anyone regardless of other health conditions.

Families facing the challenges of Down syndrome can find peace of mind in having The Dechoker on hand. Learn more about how it works here.


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