Blockage of upper airway
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).
Airway obstruction - acute upper
The airway can become narrowed or blocked due to many causes, including:
Symptoms vary, depending on the cause. But some symptoms are common to all types of airway blockage. These include:
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will do a physical examination and check the airway. The provider will also ask about the possible cause of the blockage.
Tests are usually not necessary, but may include:
Treatment depends on the cause of the blockage.
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:
Learn how to clear a foreign body from the airway using a method such as abdominal thrusts.
Reardon RF, Mason PE, Clinton JE. Basic airway management and decision making. In: Roberts JR, ed. Roberts & Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014: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.
Review Date: 7/2/2017
Reviewed By: Jesse Borke, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, Attending Physician at FDR Medical Services / Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Buffalo, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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