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First Aid Guide: Foreign object inhaled

Team AckoJun 14, 2024

When someone unexpectedly inhales a foreign object (like a small toy piece or food), acting quickly and correctly is important. This can happen to anyone, regardless of age, from curious toddlers to adults just going about their day. The results of inhaling a foreign object can range from minor irritation to serious problems that could risk a person's life. 

Foreign body inhalation is a critical form of a medical emergency. It stands as the fifth leading cause of injury-related deaths. Your ability to act quickly and decisively in these situations could mean the difference between life and death for someone inhaling something. 

This article is a guide to help you respond effectively when someone has inhaled a foreign object. It will teach you how to recognise the signs of an inhalation incident and administer the right first-aid procedures. So, let’s get started.





What is the meaning of ‘foreign object inhaled’?

Foreign object inhaled refers to the unexpected entry of a foreign object into the airways via the nose. Depending on where the object is lodged, this condition can be moderate or serious, necessitating immediate medical intervention. Complications related to foreign objects Inhaled may either be immediate or delayed.

Immediate difficulties usually emerge when a foreign object becomes trapped in the glottal opening, larynx, or trachea, either entirely or partially restricting the movement of air to both lungs.

What happens if a foreign object is inhaled?

You may choke if you unknowingly inhale an object. When a foreign object partially or fully blocks the throat or trachea (breathing tube), air cannot reach the lungs. The following are some symptoms of choking.

  • Contracting throat

  • Coughing or wheezing

  • Trouble breathing, speaking, or swallowing

  • Generating a whistling sound

  • Blue lips or skin 

  • Asphyxia (unable to breathe)

  • Loss of consciousness

However, lower degrees of blockage may result in less severe symptoms such as prolonged wheezing (a whistling sound while breathing), a chronic cough, coughing up blood (haemoptysis), and fever.

The specific symptoms and severity of the illness are determined by the size of the blockage and where it got stuck in the airways. Affected individuals frequently exhibit initial signs of choking and coughing before developing further respiratory symptoms such as wheezing or persistent coughing. 

On the other hand, foreign object inhalation can be fatal in cases of extreme severity. As a result, any foreign object that lodges in the airways should be handled as a medical emergency.

Subsequent Symptoms

Individuals with mild airway obstruction may experience initial symptoms. But these can subside and enter an asymptomatic phase. Even if the foreign object remains in the airways, reflexes calm down. Therefore, symptoms like breathing difficulties or coughing disappear. This asymptomatic period can range from several hours to a few weeks.

However, other symptoms are likely to become prominent after a short time. After the asymptomatic phase, foreign object inhalation can cause the following symptoms:

  • Recurrent cough

  • Fever

  • Wheezing

  • Difficulty swallowing for a persistent amount of time

Causes of Foreign Body Inhalation

Accidentally breathing in different types of foreign bodies, such as food or a non-edible item, is called foreign body inhalation. Food is the usual culprit, especially nuts, seeds, raisins, grapes, and candy. Liquids can also be inhaled and end up obstructing the airways. 

Other common non-edible objects found in airways include toys, coins, pins, and dental devices like crowns and retainers. Balloons are especially hazardous for children.

Diagnosis of Foreign Body Inhalation

Early diagnosis is crucial for foreign object aspiration, as a severe blockage in the airways can swiftly endanger life. Upon symptom evaluation, if a doctor suspects a serious obstruction, urgent medical intervention will be provided to remove the object without delay. 

However, if the affected individual is stable and shows signs of a milder or past foreign body aspiration, additional examinations may be prescribed prior to treatment to assess the situation further. Some possible diagnostic exams can include:

Physical Examination

Before making a diagnosis, a doctor may conduct a physical exam that involves:

  • Assessing breathing function

  • Evaluating speech and voice abilities 

  • Inspecting physical appearance for any abnormal skin discoloration 

  • Measuring vital signs such as pulse rate, blood pressure, and temperature 

  • Using a non-invasive device called a pulse oximeter to monitor blood oxygen levels

Imaging Tests

In some cases of foreign object inhalation, a doctor may order an imaging test to see inside your body. An X-ray is usually the first choice. It uses safe radiation and can often find objects in your airways. But some objects don't show up on X-rays. 

If an X-ray doesn't show anything, a CT scan may be recommended. It also uses radiation but is more powerful, giving a more detailed view. These imaging tests can also check for any complications from the aspiration, like a collapsed lung.

Diagnostic Bronchoscopy

If imaging tests don't give clear answers, a procedure called bronchoscopy may be recommended to check for a foreign object stuck in the airways. In this procedure, a doctor inserts a long, narrow tube (bronchoscope) through your mouth to examine your airways. 

The bronchoscope has a light and a camera on the end, allowing the doctor to see up close areas like your voice box, windpipe, and smaller airways. Bronchoscopies can be used to either diagnose foreign body inhalation by confirming the presence and location of the object or to treat the condition by physically removing the item.

Quick action: First Aid for foreign objects inhaled

While waiting for assistance from a qualified medical expert, the following First Aid measures for 'foreign object inhaled' may be implemented.

For Adults

  • Encourage the patient to cough if the blockage is mild; otherwise, do nothing but monitor progress

  • In the case of a significant obstruction in a conscious patient, stand towards the side a little behind the victim, hold the victim's chest with one hand, and tilt the person forward (so that the obstructing object exits through the mouth) 

  • With the heel of your other palm, apply up to five quick back blows.

  • In the case of an unconscious patient, lay the patient on the floor. Begin CPR (even if the unconscious patient has a pulse). Call an ambulance right away.

For Children

The following first aid techniques are usually suitable for children when they inhale a foreign object:

  • If the child is coughing effectively, simply encourage them to cough and observe consistently.

  • If coughing is ineffective, call for assistance and check the child's conscious state.

  • If the child is conscious, administer up to five back strikes, followed by five thrusts to the chest and abdomen, respectively (continue the process until the blockage is removed or the patient goes unconscious).

  • If the child goes unconscious, place them on a flat surface and call for assistance. Look inside the mouth for any noticeable objects. If you see one, try to remove it with a single finger sweep (do not use blind finger sweeps).

  • If that fails, start CPR as for paediatric basic life support. Start with five breaths of rescue, monitoring for chest movement each time.

How to Correctly Give Back Blows

Position yourself to the right and slightly behind an adult who is choking. If it's a child, crouch down behind them. Wrap your arm around their chest to provide support. Lean the person forward at the waist so they are facing downward. Give five strikes between their shoulder blades using the base of your hand.

If back blows aren’t enough to remove the object, you should go for abdominal thrusts. Try to give around five abdominal thrusts to the individual. You can also alternate between back blows and abdominal thrusts to dislodge the foreign body in trachea, larynx, or bronchi. 

How to Give Abdominal Thrusts

Position yourself behind the individual. If it's a child, lower yourself down to a kneeling position. Ensure stability by placing one foot slightly ahead of the other. Embrace the waist with your arms. 

Tilt the person forward a bit. Create a fist with one hand and position it right above the person's belly button. 

Grip the fist with your other hand. Apply a sudden, upward force to the abdomen, aiming to raise the individual. When dealing with a child, exert gentle but firm pressure to prevent harm to their internal organs.

How to Give Chest Thrusts

If the person is pregnant or you can’t wrap your arms around their abdomen for some reason, you will have to give them chest thrusts. The correct way to do that is as follows:

Place your hands at the sternum, slightly above where the lowest ribs meet. 

Apply firm pressure to the chest with a swift movement. It is one of the first aid methods that mimic the Heimlich manoeuvre. 

Continue repeating this process until the obstruction is cleared from the air passage.

What If You Are Alone and Choking?

  • Dial 102 or contact your nearest emergency services immediately. 

  • Next, give yourself abdominal thrusts to dislodge the object blocking the airway. 

  • Position your fist just above your belly button and grip it with your other hand. 

  • Lean over a sturdy surface like a countertop or chair, then push your fist in and upwards.


Infants and young kids are especially prone to foreign object inhalation. This is due to the fact that babies are inherently curious and investigate their surroundings by putting objects in their mouths. Additionally, the airways of kids are also small, and their cough reflexes may not be fully developed.

Here are a few steps you may try to lower the risk of choking and foreign object inhalation in young children.

  • When kids are eating or drinking, make sure they are sitting properly.

  • Children under the age of five should not be given hard or round items such as entire nuts or grapes.

  • Toys having small parts should be kept for children above the age of three.

  • Keep plastic bags out of the reach of small children.

  • Keep tiny objects out of reach of young children. For example, needles, safety pins, coins, magnets, batteries, and buttons should be kept away from them.

  • Learn to administer infant and child CPR.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about first aid for foreign objects inhaled.


What are the main symptoms of foreign objects inhaled?

When a person's airway gets blocked because of inhaling a foreign object, they may experience the following symptoms.

  • Contracting throat

  • Coughing or wheezing

  • Trouble breathing, speaking, or swallowing

  • Generating a whistling sound

  • Blue lips or skin 

  • Asphyxia (inability to breathe)

  • Loss of consciousness

Can a foreign object be Inhaled into the lungs?

Yes. An object aspirated into the airways could block the bronchi, which are the two channels that carry air into the lungs. 

What are the treatment options for foreign object inhalation?

The procedure used for removing a foreign object is determined by the object's size, shape, and exact location. During an incident of a foreign object inhalation, First Aid is often given by encouraging the affected person to cough or by giving back blows and abdominal thrusts.


 Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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