Blocked Airway

Foreign object – inhaled or swallowed


If you breath a foreign object into the respiratory tract, it may become stuck and cause breathing problems, as well as inflammation and infection.

If swallowed, a foreign object may become stuck along the digestive tract.

See also: Choking

Alternative Names

Obstructed airway; Blocked airway


These injuries can occur at any age, but are most common in children ages 1 to 3.


Certain foods (nuts, seeds, popcorn) and small objects (buttons, beads) are easily inhaled by young children. Such objects may cause either partial or total airway blockage .

Coins, small toys, marbles, pins, screws, rocks, and anything else small enough for infants or toddlers to put in their mouths can be swallowed. If the object passes through the esophagus and into the stomach without getting stuck, it will probably pass through the entire digestive tract.


When tiny foreign objects are breathed in (inhaled), they usually cause coughing , wheezing , breathing distress, or a total lack of air. However, in some cases, only minor symptoms are initially present, and the object may be forgotten until later symptoms (inflammation, infection) develop.

First Aid


Any child who may have inhaled an object should be seen by a doctor. Children with obvious breathing distress may require emergency measures for total airway blockage .

If choking or coughing subsides, and the child does not have any other symptoms, he or she may be monitored for signs and symptoms of respiratory infection or irritation. X-rays may be needed.

Bronchoscopy may be necessary for definitive diagnosis as well as removal of the object. Antibiotics may be used and respiratory therapy techniques if infection develops.


Any child who is believed to have swallowed a foreign object should be observed for pain, fever, vomiting, or local tenderness. Stools (bowel movements) should be examined to detect the passage of the foreign object.

Even sharp objects (such as pins and screws) usually pass through the GI tract without complications. X-rays are occasionally needed, especially if the child has pain or the object does not pass within 4 to 5 days.


DO NOT “force feed” infants that are crying or breathing rapidly.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

If a child is believed to have either inhaled or swallowed an object, call your health care provider.


  • Do not give children under 3 potentially dangerous foods such as hot dogs, whole grapes, nuts, popcorn, or hard candy.
  • Keep small objects out of infant and toddler’s reach.
  • Cut food into appropriate sizes for small children, and teach adequate chewing.
  • Discourage talking, laughing, or playing while food is in the mouth.