What should I do if someone is choking?

Choking happens when someone's airway suddenly gets blocked, either fully or partly, so they can't breathe.

This information applies to adults and children over 1 year old.

If you want advice for babies under 1 year old, see What should I do if a baby is choking?

Mild choking: encourage them to cough

If the airway is only partly blocked, the person will usually be able to speak, cry, cough or breathe.

They'll usually be able to clear the blockage themselves.

To help with mild choking in an adult or child over 1 year old:

  • encourage them to keep coughing to try to clear the blockage
  • ask them to try to spit out the object if it's in their mouth
  • don't put your fingers in their mouth to help them as they may bite you accidentally

If coughing doesn't work, start back blows.

Severe choking: back blows and abdominal thrusts

Where choking is severe, the person won't be able to speak, cry, cough or breathe. Without help, they'll eventually become unconscious.

To carry out a back blow on an adult or child over 1 year old:

  • Stand behind them and slightly to one side. Support their chest with 1 hand. Lean them forward so the object blocking their airway will come out of their mouth, rather than moving further down.
  • Give up to 5 sharp blows between their shoulder blades with the heel of your hand. The heel is between the palm of your hand and your wrist.
  • Check if the blockage has cleared.
  • If not, give up to 5 abdominal thrusts.

Adbdominal thrusts

Don't give abdominal thrusts to babies under 1 year old or pregnant women.

To carry out an abdominal thrust:

  • Stand behind the person who's choking.
  • Place your arms around their waist and bend them forward.
  • Clench 1 fist and place it right above their belly button.
  • Put the other hand on top of your fist and pull sharply inwards and upwards.
  • Repeat this movement up to 5 times.

If the person's airway is still blocked after trying back blows and abdominal thrusts, get help immediately:

  • Call 999 and ask for an ambulance. Tell the 999 operator the person is choking.
  • Continue with the cycles of 5 back blows and 5 abdominal thrusts until help arrives.

If they lose consciousness and aren't breathing, you should begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) with chest compressions.

Find out how to do compression-only CPR and CPR with rescue breaths

Complications

Get urgent medical help at an A&E, NHS walk-in centre or a GP if:

  • they have a persistent cough after choking
  • they feel something is still stuck in their throat

Abdominal thrusts can cause serious injuries. A health professional such as your GP or a doctor in A&E should always examine someone after they have received abdominal thrusts.

Further information

Page last reviewed: 21/08/2018
Next review due: 21/08/2021