What is an Airway Obstruction?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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An airway obstruction, also known as an acute airway obstruction, is a blockage of the respiratory passages that usually causes difficulty breathing. Patients are frequently able to recover fully from an acute airway obstruction with prompt treatment. It can also be a chronic problem caused by underlying medical conditions, such as lung disease, which worsens over time.

An acute airway obstruction is characterized by sudden onset and severe symptoms. It is usually a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate medical attention. If help is delayed, death or brain damage can result from the lack of vital oxygen. With prompt medical assistance, patients have an excellent chance of making a full recovery.

Symptoms of an acute airway obstruction can include the following conditions: agitation, confusion, or panic; difficulty breathing; respiratory noises like wheezing, whistling, or gasping for air; choking; changes in consciousness including unconsciousness; or bluish skin color called cyanosis. It can have many possible causes like allergic reactions which cause the airway to swell closed, chemical burns or reactions, or breathing in smoke. It can be also be prompted by foreign objects, food becoming stuck in the airway, or other trauma. It can also be brought about by several medical conditions including infections, croup, abscesses on parts of the airway, and throat cancer.


Treatment of an acute airway obstruction varies depending on the cause of the problem. If there is a foreign object completely blocking the airway and the person is unable to breathe, an emergency procedure called the Heimlich maneuver can save his or her life. In cases like this, there often is no time to wait for emergency personnel. Objects causing partial blockages treatment can be removed with an instrument called a laryngoscope or a bronchoscope. Breathing can also be restored with an opening called a tracheotomy, made directly in the airway, or by inserting a breathing tube.

The most common cause of chronic airway obstruction is a progressive illness called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The condition is characterized by an ongoing obstruction of the airway that grows worse over time. The airway obstruction is caused by chronic bronchitis or emphysema permanently changing the structure of the respiratory system.

Symptoms of COPD typically progress gradually from a cough with periods of abnormal breathing like shortness of breath to constant difficulty breathing with cyanosis and eventual heart failure. The most common cause of COPD is cigarette smoking, including exposure to secondhand smoke. The condition has no cure; symptoms can be managed on a long term basis, however, and may allow those with mild cases to live a relatively normal life.


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