Is an Acute Upper Airway Obstruction?
An acute upper airway obstruction (UAO) is when a blockage occurs
in your upper airway. The upper airway of your respiratory system consists of
the trachea, larynx or voice box, and throat. A blockage in your airway could
prevent your body from getting enough oxygen.
A lack of oxygen could cause brain damage, and even a heart
attack, in a matter of minutes. Any obstruction of your upper airway has
the potential to be life threatening. Seek emergency medical attention
immediately if you suspect that you, or someone you know, has an obstructed
Can Cause the Obstruction?
Three of the most common causes of acute upper airway obstruction
Your airway can also be obstructed if you inhale a foreign object
Anaphylaxis is a
severe allergic reaction that can happen within minutes of coming into contact
with an allergen. An allergen is a substance that triggers an allergic reaction
in your body. Anaphylaxis can be fatal. During an anaphylactic
reaction, your airway swells and obstructs your breathing. Peanuts and bee
stings are among the most common anaphylaxis-causing allergens. Some people are
allergic to a medication, such as Penicillin that may cause a severe reaction.
Epiglottitis is a
condition that occurs as a result of the epiglottis becoming swollen. The epiglottis is
a flap of cartilage that covers the opening of your windpipe. Swelling may be
caused by anything from an infection to simply drinking coffee that is too hot.
Epiglottitis can block the flow of air to your lungs and it can be potentially
Croup is a condition
that usually causes a harsh, barking cough. The barking cough is caused by an
inflamed windpipe and vocal cords. The swollen windpipe causes the vibration of
your vocal cords to sound different. Croup is not considered to be a severe
condition and it can usually be treated at home.
Inhaling a foreign object, like a nut or bead, can cause acute
UAO. A foreign object can get stuck in your throat or other air passage,
causing an obstruction. While foreign objects can be inhaled accidentally at
any age, this is most commonly seen in toddlers and small children.
Should I Alert My Doctor?
You should seek emergency help as soon as you suspect acute UAO. While
your symptoms may vary, some symptoms are common no matter what caused your
obstruction. Some of the most common signs of an obstruction, from least to
most severe, are:
- swelling of the face and tongue
- difficulty breathing
- wheezing and other unusual breath sounds
Cyanosis can also appear as a sign of acute UAO, depending on the
severity and duration of your blockage. Cyanosis occurs when there is not
enough oxygen in the blood. The lack of oxygen can give your skin, lips, and
fingernails a bluish color. If you notice a bluish tint to your
appearance, seek emergency medical treatment immediately.
Treatment of an Upper Airway Instruction
Treatment of your upper airway obstruction will depend on the
cause. Regardless of the source of your obstruction, prompt medical attention
is extremely important.
Due to its potentially life-threatening consequences, anaphylaxis
requires immediate treatment. If you suspect that you or someone you know
is having an anaphylactic reaction, call 911.
Treatment for anaphylaxis may involve the use of oxygen as well
as antihistamines and anti-inflammatory drugs to help you breathe and reduce
the swelling. If you know that you’re at risk for anaphylaxis, your doctor may
have already given you an auto-injector. An auto-injector is a syringe that
carries a premeasured dose of epinephrine, or
adrenaline, in it. Epinephrine can effectively stop your anaphylaxis and it may
save your life.
To treat epiglottitis your doctor will first want to make sure
that you’re able to breathe. This is usually done by administering oxygen using
a mask or breathing tube. If you have epiglottitis as a result of an infection,
antibiotics will be prescribed.
Croup can usually be treated at home. Breathing moist air with
the help of a humidifier and drinking plenty of fluids can help speed up your
recovery. If symptoms remain or get worse, your doctor might put you on
corticosteroids, which are medications that help reduce inflammation. If an
infection caused your croup, antibiotics may be given. Children have small
airways and are at highest risk of complication related to airway swelling. If
a child with croup begins to make a high pitched noise when inhaling or
exhaling, seems agitated, or struggles to breathe seek immediate medical
If your child has inhaled a foreign object, and cannot cough,
speak, or breathe, call 911. In the meantime, the American Red Cross
recommends that you administer five strong, but not painful, blows to the back,
below the shoulder blades with the heel of your hand. Then, give five abdominal
thrusts, also called the Heimlich maneuver. Do this by:
- standing behind your child and wrapping your
arms around their waist
- placing the thumb side of your fist right above
the affected person’s belly button
- using a quick, upward thrust to press your fist
into the abdomen with the help of your available hand
Alternate between five back blows and five abdominal thrusts to
try to remove the obstruction while you wait for emergency assistance.