Foreign object swallowed: First aid

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you swallow a foreign object, it will usually pass through your digestive system uneventfully. But some objects can lodge in your esophagus, the tube that connects your throat and stomach. If an object is stuck in your esophagus, you may need to remove it, especially if it is:

  • A pointed object, which should be removed as quickly as possible to avoid further injury to the esophageal lining
  • A tiny watch- or calculator-type button battery, which can rapidly cause nearby tissue injury and should be removed from the esophagus without delay

If a person who has swallowed an object is coughing forcefully, encourage him or her to continue coughing and do not interfere. If a swallowed object blocks the airway and the person's condition worsens (the cough becomes silent or their breathing becomes more difficult), the American Red Cross recommends the "five-and-five" approach to first aid:

  • Give 5 back blows. First, deliver five back blows between the victim's shoulder blades with the heel of your hand.
  • Give 5 abdominal thrusts. Perform five abdominal thrusts (also known as the Heimlich maneuver). Abdominal thrusts may injure infants. Use chest compressions instead.
  • Alternate between 5 back blows and 5 abdominal thrusts until the blockage is dislodged.

If you're the only rescuer, perform back blows and abdominal thrusts before calling 911 or your local emergency number for help. If another person is available, have that person call for help while you perform first aid.

If the person becomes unconscious, help him or her to the ground and begin CPR. With attempted breaths, check the mouth for an object and if visible remove it. Do not perform a "blind finger sweep" because this could push an object farther into the airway.

The American Heart Association does not teach the back-blow technique, only the abdominal thrust procedures. It's OK not to use back blows if you have not learned the back-blow technique. Both approaches are acceptable.

To perform abdominal thrusts (the Heimlich maneuver) on someone else:

  • Stand behind the person. Wrap your arms around the waist. Tip the person forward slightly.
  • Make a fist with one hand. Position it slightly above the person's navel.
  • Grasp the fist with the other hand. Press hard into the abdomen with a quick, upward thrust — as if trying to lift the person up.
  • Perform a total of 5 abdominal thrusts, if needed. If the blockage still isn't dislodged, repeat the five-and-five cycle.

A modified version of the technique is sometimes taught for use with pregnant or obese people. The rescuer places his or her hand in the center of the chest to compress, rather than in the abdomen.

To perform abdominal thrusts (the Heimlich maneuver) on yourself:
If you're choking and alone and have a land-line phone, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. You can't perform back blows on yourself. But you can perform abdominal thrusts.

  • Place a fist slightly above your navel.
  • Grasp your fist with the other hand and bend over a hard surface — a countertop or chair will do.
  • Shove your fist inward and upward.
Nov. 08, 2011