After a stressful day at the office, a night by yourself with a few episodes of Narcos, a couple beers, and takeout is just what you need.
But then the last bite of burrito supreme gets lodged in your throat. With no one around, and your airway blocked, what do you do?
It’s tough not to panic, because choking always causes a rush of adrenaline and fear, according to Dr Richard Bradley, professor of emergency medicine at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council.
Oxygen stored in the lungs can keep you alive for several minutes if your breathing is blocked. But if you don’t get the obstruction - the food - removed within four to six minutes, your brain can start to suffer serious damage. Irreversible brain death occurs in about 10 minutes.
But try to keep calm and act fast - your life depends on it. Follow these steps to save yourself from choking when you’re all alone.
Hack It Up
If you can cough or make any sound, that’s good news: Your airway isn’t completely blocked off, so you have a shot at coughing it out. Try to cough as forcefully as possible, like you do when you’re trying to hack up mucus when you’re sick.
Don’t drink any water to try forcing the food down - that can actually make it worse, Dr Bradley notes.
(Abdominal) Thrust Yourself
Yes, it’s the same action you’d use to help someone else choke, but you’d be doing it on yourself. Make a fist with one hand and put the thumb side between your belly button and rib cage, Dr Bradley says.
Then place your other hand on top of that. Push as hard as you can in a quick motion straight into the area. This will exert pressure on the bottom of the diaphragm, which compresses the lungs and forces the remaining air to push up through the trachea - hopefully with enough pressure to dislodge the food.
That’s the basics of it, but if the motion makes you nervous consider signing up for a Red Cross class to get the first aid procedure down. A class will be particularly helpful for learning how to assist others - for example, the Red Cross recommends back blows first when someone else is choking, and then follow with abdominal thrusts.
Use a Chair
If that’s not working, keep your hands in the same position and lean quickly over the back of a sturdy chair to exert more force into the push. This provides a hard pressure wave designed to drive air upward, providing enough force to propel the food out of its stuck position, Dr Bradley says.
If five or six quick thrusts isn’t doing the job, call 999 immediately, preferably from a landline. At this point, you’ve likely lost quite a bit of air and even though you can’t speak, and may pass out soon, emergency responders can help.
Emergency services will automatically send help to any call, even if no one is talking on the other end. In some areas, they have the technology to do this for cell phone calls as well.
Get Medical Attention
If you do get that food chunk out - congrats on saving your own life - then it’s still a good idea to go to the emergency room, Dr Bradley advises. The type of hard thrusts necessary to expel food can do a number on your abdomen and organs, so you might be facing a ruptured spleen or other issues.
Also, there’s a chance some of the food could have gone into your lungs, which might cause inflammation, collapse or infection.
Play the Preventive Game
Of course, not choking at all is the best remedy. In addition to taking smaller bites and chewing more thoroughly, Dr Bradley suggests limiting alcohol consumption.
“Many times when there’s choking, alcohol is involved,” he says. That’s because drinking changes your perception of when food is adequately chewed, so you tend to swallow sooner. Also, the muscles in your throat aren’t as coordinated as when you’re sober, says Dr Bradley.
Keep in mind, too, that it’s not just big chunks of meat that can be a problem. “You could choke on a lozenge,” he notes. “The best thing is to stay aware as you’re eating, and know what you would do in an emergency situation.”