Acute upper airway obstructionAirway obstruction - acute upper

An acute upper airway obstruction is a blockage of the upper airway, which can be in the trachea, voice box (laryngeal), or throat (pharyngeal) areas.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Causes of acute upper airway obstruction include:

Allergic reactions in which the trachea or throat swell closed, including allergic reactions to a bee sting, peanuts, antibiotics (penicillin), and blood pressure medications (ACE inhibitors)

Chemical burns and reactions


Epiglottitis (infection of the structure separating the trachea from the esophagus)

Fire or burns from breathing in smoke

Foreign bodies -- such as peanuts and other breathed-in foods, pieces of a balloon, buttons, coins, and small toys

Viral or bacteria infections

Peritonsillar abscess

Retropharyngeal abscess

Throat cancer



Vocal cord problems


Symptoms vary depending on the cause, but some symptoms are common to all types of airway blockage. They include:

Agitation or fidgeting

Bluish color to the skin (cyanosis)

Changes in consciousness



Difficulty breathing

Gasping for air



Wheezing, crowing, whistling, or other unusual breathing noises indicating breathing difficulty

Signs and tests

Physical examination may show:

Decreased breath sounds in the lungs

Rapid, shallow, or slowed breathing

Tests are usually not necessary, but may include:





If the person has a complete obstruction and is unable to speak or breathe, the Heimlich maneuver may be lifesaving.

Treatment depends on the cause of the blockage.

Objects stuck in the airway may be removed with a laryngoscope or bronchoscope.

A tube may be inserted into the airway (endotracheal tube or nasotracheal tube).

Sometimes an opening is made directly into the airway (tracheostomy or cricothyrotomy).

Expectations (prognosis)

Prompt treatment is often successful. However, the condition is dangerous and may be fatal, even if treated.


Inability to relieve the obstruction can cause:

Brain damage

Breathing failure


Calling your health care provider

Airway obstruction is an emergency. It is a good idea to learn how to clear an airway of a foreign body by using a method such as the Heimlich maneuver.

Diseases in which airway obstruction develops over a period of hours will allow time to get to a hospital. If an acute airway obstruction occurs, call 911 or your local emergency number for medical help. Do what you can to maintain breathing until medical help arrives.


Prevention depends on the cause of the upper airway obstruction.

The following methods may help prevent an obstruction:

Eat slowly and chew food completely.

Don't drink too much alcohol before or while eating.

Keep small objects away from young children.

Make sure dentures fit properly