What to Know About an Airway Obstruction

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on March 04, 2024
3 min read

An airway obstruction happens when you can't move air in or out of your lungs. It could be because you inhaled something that's blocking your airway. Or it could be caused by disease, allergic reaction, or trauma. Airway obstructions may block part of your airway or the whole thing.

Airway obstructions can happen anywhere along your airway, including your:

Upper respiratory tract. The upper airway consists of the following parts:

  • Nose
  • Mouth
  • Pharynx
  • Larynx

Lower respiratory tract. The lower airway includes:

Foreign objects. Inhaling an object that blocks the airway is the fourth leading cause of unintentional death. This is more likely to happen in children, who have smaller airways, and people who have problems with their nerves and muscles. The objects most likely to cause choking deaths in children include:

  • Hot dogs
  • Candy
  • Nuts
  • Grapes
  • Balloons

In adults, the objects most likely to cause choking deaths include:  

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Sausage
  • Bread products
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables

Anaphylaxis. Allergies can lead to a severe, life-threatening reaction. It's almost always unexpected and can lead to death. Anaphylaxis causes the airways to swell and stop you from breathing if not treated right away. The most common causes of anaphylaxis include:

  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Seeds
  • Milk
  • Medicines
  • Insect venom

Burns. When the air temperature gets hot enough, such as in a fire, it can injure your upper airway. These injuries cause swelling to your epiglottis, which is a flap of cartilage at the root of the tongue, and the mucous membranes around the larynx. This swelling can block your airway.

Infections. The most common cause of infectious airway obstruction in children is croup, which is caused by a virus. Infections caused by bacteria can also lead to airway obstruction, though it's not as common. These include:

Lower airway obstructions can be caused by a variety of different conditions. Some of the most common include:

Asthma. Asthma is a lifelong disease that affects airflow. Symptoms include airway swelling, hyperreactivity, and making more mucus. They can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness in your chest. Asthma can be triggered by many different factors, including: 

  • Changes in the weather
  • Allergens
  • Infections
  • Exercise

Bronchiolitis. Bronchiolitis most often affects young children and is usually caused by a virus. It makes your airways swell, blocking airflow. Symptoms of bronchiolitis can include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Wheezing
  • Young babies may stop breathing periodically

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). That’s an inflammatory lung disease that blocks the airflow into the lungs. COPD can cause inflammation of the lining of the tubes that carry air to the sacs in the lungs. This is called chronic bronchitis. Emphysema also contributes to COPD by destroying the air sacs at the end of the smallest air passages. Symptoms of COPD include:

  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in legs, ankles, or feet
  • Frequent respiratory infections

Symptoms of an airway obstruction can vary depending on how severe the blockage is, including:

  • Violent coughing
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Turning blue
  • Choking
  • Gagging
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

The treatment for an airway obstruction depends on the cause and severity.

An inhaled object is a medical emergency and needs treatment right away. If an inhaled object causes choking, you should call 911 and perform first aid. The five-and-five method recommended by the American Red Cross consists of five black blows followed by five abdominal thrusts, which is the Heimlich maneuver. Alternate between the two until the object is coughed up.

Other treatment options may include: