First responders encounter a wide variety of airway obstructions and must be prepared to respond with appropriate medical care.  The types and prevalence of airway obstructions vary depending on age.  Children younger than the age of four are commonly more vulnerable to choking-related upper airway obstructions.  Adults are more likely to have airway obstruction due to complications from smoking. Here are the five most common causes of upper airway obstruction.

1. Tongue-Related Airway Obstruction

Patients who are unconscious or have suffered a neurological injury such as spinal cord injury typically have a relaxed tongue which causes an upper airway obstruction. Sometimes other injuries may complicate the phenomenon. A patient who has a blow to the head may also suffer upper airway trauma, causing both the tongue and the trauma to block the airway.

2. Foreign Body Lodged in the Airway

The most common cause of airway obstruction in children younger than four years old is caused by a foreign body being lodged in the airway.  Choking may completely obstruct the airway due to such objects as small toys, round foods like berries or grapes, rocks, pebbles, or beads. Eighty-eight percent of deaths due to airway obstruction occur in children under age four years old.

3. Swelling

An airway may be obstructed in seconds due to swelling.  Infections and allergies may cause severe upper airway swelling, the most common cause of anaphylaxis. More than 32 million Americans have food allergies, putting them at risk for swelling-related airway obstructions.  The prevalence of food allergies is increasing with the number of children with peanut allergies on the rise, tripling between 1997 and 2008. Asthma may cause upper airway swelling, but in most cases is well-managed with an inhaler.  A severe asthmatic reaction may be fatal, but prompt medical care and diligent airway management greatly reduce mortality.

4. Infection

Infections such as pneumonia, RSV or even common colds may result in upper airway obstruction.  Children are commonly the most vulnerable due to smaller airways, with newborns being in the most danger. People with chronic conditions such as COPD are also at high risk for infectious upper airway obstructions.

5. Trauma

Traumatic injuries such as gunshot or knife wounds may directly collapse and obstruct an airway.  Continuous bleeding from a traumatic injury or vomiting may obstruct the airway making airway management complicated and increasing the risk of aspiration pneumonia. If a patient cannot clear their own airway, they may require suctioning.  A brain and spinal cord injury may inhibit the brain’s ability to control breathing, coughing, and other important respiratory functions.

MedTrust Transport provides emergent and non-emergent ambulance services in Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Georgetown, South Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida.  We have trained EMT personnel and a fleet of fully-equipped ambulances.  We aim to provide passionate and timely patient care.