The United States National Safety Council note that 5,051 people passed away from choking in 2015. For this reason, it is vital to know how to stop or prevent choking.
It is also worth pointing out that food is more likely to cause death from choking than pills.
It is usually possible to resolve the problem quickly and simply, and there are a few methods of prevention that can help reduce the chances of it happening at all.
If a person is alone and choking on a pill, they should first dial 911. Then, they should try to perform the Heimlich maneuver on themselves.
To do this:
- Make a fist with one hand and place it on the stomach just above the belly button, grabbing the wrist with the opposite hand.
- Find something sturdy to bend over, such as a table, counter edge, or chair.
- Using the sturdy object for more force, push the fist in and up in a quick motion to force the object out of the throat.
The Heimlich maneuver is a simple and effective way to remove a blockage in the throat. A 2017 study paper in the journal Thorax notes that giving the Heimlich maneuver to oneself is just as effective as having someone else do it.
If a person cannot breathe, cough, or cry out
If a person is still conscious but cannot breathe, there are a couple of things a person near them can try.
The Heimlich maneuver
The Heimlich maneuver may help dislodge a pill stuck in the throat.
Performing the Heimlich maneuver, or abdominal thrusts, on another person may help dislodge the pill.
Follow these steps:
- Stand behind the person, wrap your arms around their waist, and lean them forward slightly.
- Make a fist with one hand and place it just above the person's belly button, using the other hand to hold onto your wrist.
- Quickly squeeze your hands in and upward slightly into the person's abdomen.
- Repeat this action up to five times or until the pill comes out of their mouth.
Back blows and abdominal thrusts can dislodge a pill.
People can also try using a combination of back blows and abdominal thrusts to try to dislodge a pill in someone else by doing the following:
- Stand directly behind the person, placing one arm across their chest.
- Lean them forward slightly at the waist.
- Take the heel of the opposite hand and give the person five sturdy hits on their back between the shoulder blades.
- Place one fist into the abdomen just above the belly button.
- Grab your wrist with the opposite hand.
- Quickly squeeze your hands in and up five times.
Repeat these two processes until the person spits up the pill or shows other signs of breathing, such as coughing or gasping.
If a person is unconscious
If the person is unconscious, call emergency medical services. It is important not to put a finger into the person's throat.
If the object blocking their throat is visible and easy to remove, it may help to sweep the object from their airways gently. However, putting a finger in the person's throat may only lodge the pill deeper and make the situation more dangerous.
Lay them on their back and perform chest compressions, regularly checking to see whether the object has come loose.
If a person is coughing
If the person is also coughing, crying, or showing other signs of breathing, there is not a complete blockage of the airways. Encourage the person to continue coughing, as this is the body's natural way of dislodging obstructions in the throat.
If the person can breathe but the pill is still in their throat, have them drink a few gulps of water or try to eat a small piece of food to dislodge the pill. Do not leave a pill to dissolve in the throat.
There are several preventive steps for stopping a pill from getting stuck in the throat. These include:
A simple prevention tip may be to drink a small amount of water before taking the pill. Keeping the throat moist may make it much less likely that the pill will catch on the throat while a person is swallowing.
Some pills may seem drier than others, and some people simply seem to have issues with pills getting stuck in their throat.
In these cases, it may help to drink water before taking the pill, swallow the pill with a big gulp of water, and continue drinking water after swallowing the pill.
Sometimes, the muscles in the throat may be too tight when taking the pill. It may help to relax the throat muscles by tilting the head forward while swallowing.
It may also help to give the pill as little resistance to gravity as possible. This may mean sitting up or standing when taking it, as lying down may make it harder to swallow.
Take the pill with something else
If it is acceptable to take the pill with food, a few smooth foods may make it easier to swallow. Foods to try include:
- mashed potatoes
Chewing up a bite of food thoroughly and then adding the pill to the mouth to swallow the entire mouthful may also help.
Emptying or crushing the pill
Talk to a doctor or pharmacist about the possibility of powdering the pill.
Some pills may work just as well if the person grinds them into a powder or empties the capsule. Then the person can simply mix the powder with a liquid or smooth food to take it.
This may not be suitable for every pill, however, and the effects of the drug may change depending on how the person takes it.
Always talk to a doctor or pharmacist before doing this.
Why do pills get stuck?
Lack of moisture is a common cause of a pill getting stuck in the throat. This may be especially true for pills that a person must take first thing in the morning. Some pill coatings or capsules may also be more likely to become stuck.
Some people may also find it harder to swallow pills. This includes small children and people with a sensitive gag reflex. Older people may also have trouble swallowing pills, especially larger ones.
People with disorders that affect the throat, such as difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing, may also be more likely to have trouble swallowing pills.
Getting a pill caught in the throat can be irritating and alarming. Most of the time, the pill is not stuck in the airways, but in the esophagus on the way down to the stomach.
It may be possible to cough the pill up or help it continue down by drinking more liquids or eating a piece of food.
To prevent it from happening in the future, make sure to drink water before, during, and after taking pills. People who struggle with gagging when taking pills can try swallowing them with smooth foods such as applesauce.
In some cases, doctors may recommend smaller pills, or have the person crush their pills or empty capsules before taking them. Always discuss this with a doctor or pharmacist before trying this, however.