Acute Upper Airway Obstruction

Acute Upper Airway Obstruction

Introduction to acute upper airway obstruction

Every system of the body is comprised of several organs. So is it with the respiratory system. The respiratory system has two parts namely the lower and the upper parts.

The upper part is more of a passage for the air. This part is made up of the throat, larynx, and trachea. When acute upper airway obstruction is developed, any or all of these parts have already become blocked.

When there is a blockage, airflow into the organs become restricted. This, in turn, will cause oxygen to be lacking in the tissues. The absence of oxygen in tissues will begin to cause untold damage to different parts of the body but most importantly the brain, heart, and respiratory organs. Its consequences could impact negatively on one’s overall health and requires immediate help from doctors.

Causes of acute upper airway obstruction

Anaphylaxis, epiglottitis, and croup have been found to be the most common causes of acute upper airway obstruction. Mistakenly inhaled food particles or objects can cause acute upper airway obstruction.


Anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction that happens within a couple of minutes in the body when a supposed allergen gains access into the body. It could be severe or mild.

An anaphylactic reaction will make your airways to start swelling. The extent of the swelling determines the extent of the obstruction. Peanuts and bee stings are two typical allergens that can bring about an anaphylaxis

Penicillin can also react in certain persons.


Epiglottitis is developed when there is a swollen epiglottis as a consequence of an inflammation. The epiglottis is a flappy cartilage covering the windpipe’s opening. Infection and extremely hot coffees can induce swelling in this organ. The degree of swelling determines the degree of the accute upper airway obstruction.


Croup is characterized by coughs that give off a harsh and barking sound. It is a condition that affects the two parts of the upper respiratory airway namely the larynx and windpipe. These two organs swell up and then cause the larynx to vibrate differently from the normal.

It is not that serious and can be managed effectively at home.

Foreign objects

When foreign objects such as beads or nuts are mistakenly inhaled, they can get stuck at any point in the upper airways. Children are more susceptible to inhaling objects. A few cases have been found in adults, too.

When should the doctor be alerted?

If you have mistakenly inhaled an object or have begun exhibiting any of the following symptoms, your doctor should be alerted immediately.

  • unconsciousness
  • agitation
  • confusion
  • swollen face
  • drooling
  • swollen tongue
  • breathing difficulties
  • wheezing
  • panic
  • choking
  • cyanosis

Cyanosis is characterized by bluish fingernails, skin, and lips due to oxygen shortage in the body. The severity of the condition will also determine whether cyanosis will be pronounced or not.

Emergency treatment for acute upper airway obstruction

Upon the assessment of the cause, treatment will be decided on immediately. Treat any acute upper airway obstruction as an emergency irrespective of the cause and act accordingly – call a doctor without any waste of time.


Anaphylaxis has consequences that can threaten one’s existence. Once you discover that you have been affected or some other person has, reach out to the emergency lines in your country.

Oxygen therapy, anti-inflammatory, and antihistamines are the most commonly used options in the treatment of anaphylaxis. They will help to prevent further swellings, shrink the existing one, and reduce accompanying pains.

If you are very susceptible to reacting to antihistamines and anti-inflammatory drugs, your doctor will rather give you epinephrine (adrenaline) from an auto-injector. An auto-injector is a predetermined epinephrine dose in asyringe.


The first thing your doctor will do to you is to make sure you breathe well. He will fix oxygen mask in your nose. From the mask, you will be able to breathe oxygen in just the needed amount. If you have an infection that brought about the inflammation, antibiotics will then be given to you.


Croup does not require medical help most times especially if an infection is not involved in its cause.

A humidifier from which you can breathe most air from will be needed. You will also have to drink a large quantity of water to hasten recovery. Corticosteroid will be considered in instances where symptoms have become worsen. It will be effective in minimizing inflammation.

Children are at the greatest risk for a croup complication because of how small their airway is.

You should therefore watch out for your kids when they begin to make funny sounds or struggle when they breathe.

Foreign objects

If your child unknowingly inhaled an object and he can no longer breathe, cough, or speak, quickly put a call through to your doctor.

While awaiting medical intervention, the American Red Cross suggests that children above 11 months old should be dealt with 5 strong blows on their back, underneath their shoulder blades using the heel of your hand. The blows should not be painful. Afterward, give 5 thrusts on their abdomen. This is called the Heimlich maneuver. This is how it should be done:

  1. Let your child stand in front of you. Wrap your arms around his/her waist.
  2. While your arms are around their waist, place your thumb right above their belly button.
  3. Thrust your fist upwards into their abdomen using your available hand. This should be done sharply.

These two suggestions should be done alternatively while waiting for the doctor to arrive.

Chest thrusts and back blows should be used for children that are not up to 12 months old. Heimlich maneuver should not be used on them.

How to give back blows:

  1. Make the infant rest on your thighs with their face looking down.
  2. Now, use the heel of your hand and deal five blows at the center of their back.

How to give chest thrusts:

  1. Make the baby lie on your thighs with his/her head facing up.
  2. Use two fingers to deal five quick pushes at the middle of his chest.

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