What should you do if someone is drowning?

The risk of choking is highest among older adults and children under 5 years of age. (Getty Images)

There’s a good chance you’ll see someone choke at some point in your life: Choking is the fourth leading cause of death from unintentional injuries, according to the National Safety Council.

You’ve been warned about the risk of choking since you were young, but would you know what to do if someone around you is choking? If not, it’s crucial to learn, experts say. “With choking, there’s an obstruction in a person’s airway, and failure to act will unfortunately lead to eventual choking and suffocation,” Dr. Eric Adkins, an emergency physician at the The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Acting quickly is also essential, Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Yahoo Life. “Sometimes you have minutes or even seconds to reestablish that airway before permanent damage occurs,” he says. “It’s an appalling situation that needs an immediate response.”

Many organizations, including the Red Cross, offer courses on what to do if someone is drowning. But if you don’t have time to take a course or you just know you’ll never get around to it, it’s important to have at least some basic knowledge of what to do in an emergency. Here’s what the experts recommend.

First of all, who is most likely to drown?

“Choking can happen to anyone,” says Dr. Zeeshan Khan, an associate professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, but he added that children younger than 5 and older adults are at the highest risk.

Children under 4, in particular, are more prone to choking “because they have smaller airways to begin with and are not used to handling different textures of food,” says Fisher. They are also “impulsive with what they put in their mouths,” he adds.

With older adults, “swallowing function can change, making people more prone to choking,” says Adkins.

Common causes of suffocation

Choking can happen in a variety of situations, but experts say the main causes in children are food, coins, toys and balloons.

In adults, “the most common causes of choking almost always involve food,” says Khan. However, he adds, “elderly people may have problems chewing and swallowing that can lead to choking.”

What to do if a baby is drowning

If someone else is there, Fisher recommends asking them to call 911 while you act. And, if you’re alone, try to get the food out first. “Your first attempt will be more lifesaving than calling 911 first,” he says.

If a child is under 1 year old, you’ll want to hold him face down and pat his back, Fisher says. “This means taking the heel of your hand and aiming between your shoulder blades,” he says. This creates strong vibration and pressure in the airway, which can usually dislodge the object, he says.

The British Red Cross specifically recommends giving up to five pats on the back while holding the baby face down along your thigh with the head lower than the bottom and supporting the baby’s head. If back strokes don’t help, turn the baby so he’s face up, place two fingers in the middle of the breast just below the nipples, and push down hard up to five times. This draws air out of the baby’s lungs and can help dislodge the blockage, according to the British Red Cross.

If a baby is choking, the British Red Cross recommends up to five pats on the back

If a baby is choking, the British Red Cross recommends up to five pats on the back while holding the baby face down. (Getty Images)

What to do if a child is drowning

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using the Heimlich maneuver on children who are choking. Again, have someone call 911 if available, while you act. You can do this when the child is lying, sitting or standing.

If they’re sitting or standing, get behind them and wrap your arms around their waist, says the AAP. Place the thumb side of your fist in the middle of his abdomen, grasp that fist with your free hand and press inward with quick upward thrusts. Repeat these pushes until the object is coughed up or the child begins to breathe or cough.

If the child is unconscious, you will want to do what is called a tongue and jaw lift. To do this, the AAP says to open your mouth with your thumb over your tongue and your fingers around your lower jaw (this pulls your tongue away from the back of your throat). You may be able to clear your airways this way. If you can see what’s causing the blockage, try removing it with a side swipe of your finger; just be careful as this could push the object further down.

If the child has not resumed breathing, gently tilt the head back and lift the chin, says the AAP. Then place your mouth over his mouth, close his nose and take two breaths of between one and a half and two seconds. Then return to the Heimlich maneuver. Keep repeating the steps until the child is breathing again or help arrives.

What to do if an adult is drowning

For adults, it’s important to first ask if they’re drowning, Adkins says. If they indicate they are, you’ll take similar steps as you would for a child, according to the American Red Cross. Give them five back blows, followed by five abdominal thrusts, if the blows did not dislodge the object.

Keep repeating this cycle or call 911 if you cannot dislodge the object.

When the choking episode resolves, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, Khan says. “There can be complications from the episode,” he says.

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