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).
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The airway can become narrowed or blocked due to many causes, including:
Allergic reactions in which the trachea or throat swell closed, including allergic reactions to a bee sting, peanuts, antibiotics (such as penicillin), and blood pressure medicines (such as ACE inhibitors)
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.
Prompt treatment is often successful. But the condition is dangerous and may be fatal, even when treated.
If the obstruction is not relieved, it can cause:
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 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 to recognize the universal sign for inability to breathe due to a blocked airway: grabbing the neck with one or both hands. Also learn how to clear a foreign body from the airway using a method such as abdominal thrusts.
Driver BE, Reardon RF. Basic airway management and decision making. In: Roberts JR, Custalow CB, Thomsen TW, eds. Roberts and Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine and Acute Care. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019: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.
Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.