Airway Obstruction | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of airway obstruction?

A child with an obstructed airway may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • choking or gagging
  • sudden violent coughing
  • vomiting
  • noisy breathing or wheezing
  • struggling to breathe
  • turning blue

What causes airway obstruction?

Blocked airways

A child’s risk of choking on food is highest before they have a full set of teeth or when the muscles involved in swallowing have not yet fully formed. Whole nuts, seeds, raw carrots cut into circles, grapes and hot dogs are particularly hazardous for young children.

Small children often put foreign objects in their mouths as they explore the world. If a child inhales an object like a coin, button or small toy, it can become lodged in the throat or esophagus. These passages are much smaller in children than in full-grown adults. Of all toys, balloons are the most common cause of choking death among children of all ages.


Window blind cords, drawstrings, scarves, necklaces, long ribbons and other cords can get wrapped around a child’s neck and cut off the flow of oxygen. In 2011, the U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission designated drawstrings on children’s clothing as hazardous and now most children’s outerwear has Velcro or snaps instead.


The majority of infant suffocation tends to occur when babies are asleep. Sleeping toddlers can suffocate on soft bedding, loose blankets, crib bumper pads, or in adult-size beds or furniture. Beanbag chairs, bunk beds, balloons, and toy chests with lids also pose suffocation hazards for young children.