Asphyxiation is when you don’t get enough oxygen in your body. Causes include allergic reactions, drowning and foreign objects blocking your airway. Symptoms include trouble breathing, loss of consciousness and inability to speak. You can prevent asphyxiation by being cautious. Treatment includes CPR, the Heimlich maneuver and medications.
Asphyxiation (as-fik-see-ay-shen) is when your body doesn’t get enough oxygen. Asphyxiation affects how you breathe. It may cause you to pass out (unconsciousness). It can also cause death.
Other names for asphyxiation include asphyxia and suffocation.
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There are many different kinds of asphyxiation, including:
Asphyxiation is very common.
In 2016, nearly 19,000 people in the United States died from asphyxiation.
From 2018 through 2019, asphyxiation was the leading cause of accidental death in children under 1 year old.
Asphyxia can affect your body in different ways:
If a foreign object is blocking your airway, your body retains carbon dioxide (hypercapnia). Oxygen can’t reach the tissues in your body (hypoxia).
Your body will try to start breathing again, which may look frightening. Your eyes may bulge, your skin may change color, your hands may grab at your throat and you may weakly cough.
Your blood pressure and heart rate increase sharply (spike), your blood pH drops and your body releases catecholamines. Catecholamines are hormones that play an important role in your body’s fight-or-flight response.
Eventually, your blood pressure drops, and your heart slows down.
You must remove the blockage or have someone administer treatment immediately. If you don’t, your heart will stop beating (cardiac arrest) in four to five minutes.
In approximately 10% of drownings, your vocal cords suddenly stop working (laryngospasm) when you first gasp water. You’ll die from asphyxiation, but you won’t have any water in your lungs.
In the other 90% of cases, the muscles in your glottis (the space between your vocal cords) relax, and water enters your lungs.
Your body will quickly absorb freshwater. Freshwater will dilute the plasma in your blood and break down your red blood cells (hemolysis).
Saltwater will draw fluids from your circulatory system into your lungs and decrease the amount of plasma in your blood.
Symptoms of asphyxiation include:
There are many different causes of asphyxiation, including:
Asphyxiation is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. If you’re with a child or adult who suddenly can’t breathe, ask them if they’re choking. If they can’t respond, look for the following signs and symptoms:
If a baby can’t breathe, look for changes to their behavior, including difficulty breathing, a weak cry or a shallow cough.
No, you shouldn’t give someone who can’t breathe something to drink. A drink may further obstruct the airway.
Asphyxia treatment depends on what’s causing your breathing difficulties. Treatment may include:
The best way to prevent asphyxiation is to be careful. If you’re with someone who can’t breathe, dial 911 immediately.
When eating, chew your food slowly and speak only after swallowing. Keep an eye on young children when they’re eating. Encourage them to eat small bites and avoid talking until they’ve swallowed their food.
If you have food allergies, carry an EpiPen with you at all times. Check the ingredients label of anything you eat.
It’s a good idea to swim with at least one other person. If you can’t swim, wear a life jacket.
Keep an inhaler with you at all times in case you have an asthma attack.
Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Have a trained professional do yearly inspections of your fuel-burning appliances. Appliances include your furnace, water heater and oven.
The outlook for people who immediately treat the cause of their asphyxiation is good.
If you don’t immediately treat asphyxiation, long-term or permanent effects may include stroke, brain injury or death.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Asphyxiation is a scary condition that stops oxygen from entering your body. You may feel panic if you or someone you’re with is showing signs of asphyxiation. However, it’s important to remain calm. Look for signs of troubled breathing, including hands clutching at the throat. Call 911 and follow the dispatcher’s directions. The sooner you address the cause of asphyxiation, the greater your chances of avoiding long-term or permanent health problems.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/13/2023.
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