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Acute Upper Airway Obstruction

Last updated March 9, 2020

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD, MPH

Acute Upper Airway Obstruction is a condition that occurs when there is an obstruction or blockage in the upper airway. Blockages can occur in the trachea, voice box (larynx), throat (pharynx), or their surrounding areas.

What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Blockage of Upper Airway
  • Choking
  • Upper Airway Obstruction (UAO)

What is Acute Upper Airway Obstruction? (Definition/Background Information)

  • Acute Upper Airway Obstruction is a condition that occurs when there is an obstruction or blockage in the upper airway. Blockages can occur in the trachea, voice box (larynx), throat (pharynx), or their surrounding areas
  • If the blockage becomes severe, oxygen intake can be drastically reduced that can quickly become a life-threatening emergency necessitating immediate medical care
  • Acute Upper Airway Obstruction is most often caused by clogging of the upper airway by foreign particles, including food and small objects. The condition can also be described as Choking and is typically observed in very young children
  • The manifestations of Upper Airway Obstruction (UAO) include difficulty breathing, choking, agitation, confusion, and unconsciousness. This may cause complications such as severe respiratory distress, brain damage, and even death
  • Children who receive prompt treatment are likely to recover from Acute Upper Airway Obstruction

Who gets Acute Upper Airway Obstruction? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • Infants and young children below the age of 9 years are most susceptible to Acute Upper Airway Obstruction. In rare cases, adults are also affected by this condition
  • Both genders are affected; there is no distinct gender predilection
  • This condition is seen worldwide

What are the Risk Factors for Acute Upper Airway Obstruction? (Predisposing Factors)

Individuals with the following risk factors are more vulnerable to Acute Upper Airway Obstruction:

  • Those prone to allergic reactions
  • Viral and bacterial infections
  • Inhalation of smoke
  • Trauma
  • Vocal cord damage or health issues
  • Peri-tonsillar abscess (collection of pus around the tonsils)
  • Retropharyngeal abscess: The presence of pus in the back of the airway
  • Throat cancer

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Acute Upper Airway Obstruction? (Etiology)

An Acute Upper Airway Obstruction is most often caused by blocked or obstructed upper airway that occurs due to the presence of foreign items that may include food, small toy parts, and other small objects.

The following conditions may also cause Blockage of Upper Airway:

  • In many cases, it also occurs due to anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction)
  • Epiglottitis (infection of the epiglottis, which is a small cartilage that covers the windpipe)
  • Retropharyngeal abscess
  • Tracheomalacia (a condition characterized by flaccidity of tracheal support cartilages resulting in tracheal collapse)

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Acute Upper Airway Obstruction?

The common signs and symptoms of Acute Upper Airway Obstruction may include:

  • Difficulty breathing, increased rate of breathing
  • Choking
  • Feeling panicky, fidgeting
  • Unable to speak or talk
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Fidgeting
  • Fatigue
  • Cyanosis (blue-purple discoloration of the skin due to lack of oxygen)
  • Drooling (dribbling of saliva outside the mouth)

How is Acute Upper Airway Obstruction Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of Acute Upper Airway Obstruction may involve:

  • Physical examination is usually suffice to make the diagnosis
  • Tests are usually not necessary, as the clinical signs and symptoms of an airway obstruction are very obvious
  • However, in some cases, the tests that may be conducted include laryngoscopy (examination of the windpipe), bronchoscopy (examination of airway and lung), and chest X-ray

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Acute Upper Airway Obstruction?

Certain life-threatening complications may be associated with Acute Upper Airway Obstruction, which is a medical emergency. These may include:

  • Severe respiratory distress
  • Brain damage due to lack of oxygen

A delay in recognition of the condition and lack of early treatment can even result in death.

How is Acute Upper Airway Obstruction Treated?

Treatment of Acute Upper Airway Obstruction depends on the cause of the upper airway blockage.

  • The Heimlich maneuver can be used emergently to prevent suffocation in medical settings
  • A laryngoscope or bronchoscope can be used to remove the foreign body from the upper airway
  • Similarly, endotracheal or nasotracheal tubes can be inserted into the airway, to remove the material causing the blockage
  • Antibiotics and drainage of pus may be required in case of infection and pus collection
  • In severe cases, a surgery may be performed to remove the blockage

How can Acute Upper Airway Obstruction be Prevented?

There are no definitive methods to prevent Acute Upper Airway Obstruction. However, proper precautions may be taken to reduce risks.

  • Keep children away from small objects that can be swallowed
  • Make sure that food pieces are cut into smaller sizes, especially when being prepared for children
  • Consume food slowly and fully chew food before swallowing, which is an effective preventative method
  • Closely watch very young children while they play with toys and small play items (toy parts)

What is the Prognosis of Acute Upper Airway Obstruction? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

  • With prompt treatment, individuals are likely to fully recover from Acute Upper Airway Obstruction without any serious complications
  • If treatment is delayed, then the lack of oxygenation of blood may lead to permanent brain damage, or in severe cases, death

Additional and Relevant Useful Information Acute Upper Airway Obstruction:

  • Choking is blockage of the airway due to food or other foreign objects getting stuck in the airway, thereby obstructing breathing

The following article link will help you understand choking and how to administer first aid for the condition:


What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Aug. 4, 2015
Last updated: March 9, 2020