Recognition of Upper Airway Obstruction

Recognition of Upper Airway Obstruction

Airway obstruction may be partial or complete, and present in the conscious or the unconscious person however can sometimes be difficult to identify or even recognize.

Typical causes of airway obstruction may include, but are not limited to:

• relaxation of the airway muscles due to unconsciousness

• inhaled foreign body such as food or liquid

• trauma to the airway

• anaphylactic reaction is also a reason for an airway to become obstructed. The symptoms and signs of obstruction will depend on the cause and severity of the condition.

Airway obstruction may occur gradually or may even occur suddenly and may lead to complete obstruction within a few seconds depending on the person. As such the person should be observed continually.

In the case of a conscious person who has inhaled a foreign body, there may be extreme anxiety, agitation, gasping sounds, coughing or loss of voice found in the person. This may progress to the universal choking sign, namely clutching the neck with the thumb and fingers.

ANZCOR Guideline 4 January 2016 Page 5 of 7 Figure 3: Universal choking sign Airway obstruction will cause the diaphragm muscle to work harder to achieve adequate ventilations. The abdomen will continue to move out but there will be loss of the natural rise of the chest (paradoxical movement), and in-drawing of the spaces between the ribs and above the collar bones during inspiration. Partial obstruction can be recognized where:

• breathing is labored
• breathing may be noisy
• some escape of air can be felt from the mouth.

Complete obstruction of a person airway can be recognized where:

• there may be efforts at breathing without success
• there is no sound of breathing
• there is no escape of air from nose and/or mouth. Airway obstruction may not be apparent in the non-breathing unconscious person until rescue breathing is attempted.

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