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Airway Obstruction Overview

Airway obstruction, which includes choking, suffocation, and strangulation, prevents oxygen from entering the lungs and brain. Lack of oxygen to the brain for more than four minutes may result in brain damage or death. Airway obstruction can occur when children choke on an object that is blocking the airway, suffocate on items that block or cover the airways, or strangle themselves with items that become wrapped around their necks.

Infants and children under age 4 are particularly at risk for choking on food or small objects because their upper airways are smaller, they are less experienced in chewing food properly, and they tend to explore things with their mouths. Airway obstruction is a very common cause of unintentional injury-related death among children under age 1. In addition, infants are at increased risk of suffocation and strangulation because they may be unable to lift their heads or get out of tight places.

To protect your child from choking, suffocating, or strangulation, familiarize yourself with the dangers associated with each age group. Consider the following safety recommendations:

  • Infants should sleep on their backs on firm, flat, crib mattresses in cribs that meet national safety standards.
  • Do not put pillows, comforters, soft toys, and other items in an infant's crib.
  • Keep certain foods that are choking hazards away from children under age 4.
  • Never let children run, play, or walk with food in their mouths.
  • Cut food into small pieces for young children and teach them to chew properly.
  • Supervise your child closely when he or she is eating.
  • Keep small toys, parts, and other small items that can be choking hazards, away from young children.
  • Remove drawstrings from the outerwear of clothing for young children.
  • Tie up or cut all window blind and drapery cords.
  • A small parts tester can help you determine whether an object is a choking hazard. A small parts tester allows for small objects to be inserted--if the object fits, it is a choking hazard.

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