What is Positional Asphyxia?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2019
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Positional asphyxia is a potentially fatal situation where a person cannot breathe because of the position she is in. If the person cannot get into a safer position, she will die from oxygen deprivation. This can be a problem with people in restraints, very ill patients, infants, and people who end up in a position they cannot get out of during an accident or other emergency situation. In situations where negligence on the part of another party causes a death, that party may be liable for damages.

Deaths of people in the custody of law enforcement custody are sometimes the result of positional asphyxia. This usually occurs because a person is restrained face down, or law enforcement officers fail to take precautions to protect the airway of a patient having seizures or vomiting. Detainees in distress, such as people who have been fighting with law enforcement or people who are intoxicated, are at increased risk of positional asphyxia. The restraints make it hard for the person in custody to get into a safer position, and the person may not be able to communicate the immediacy of the danger.


Infants sometimes die as a result of positional asphyxia because they sleep on improper bedding or their parents fail to identify an unsafe sleeping position. Keeping loose, squishy bedding, pillows, and stuffed animals around an infant can be dangerous, as can allowing infants to sleep face down. If an infant is ill and having trouble breathing because of congestion or vomiting, it is important to monitor him at all times for any signs of respiratory distress.

Sometimes people find themselves in a position where they cannot breathe after a fall, especially in the case of people with mobility impairments. This can endanger the airway and cause death if someone does not provide support. Patients with paralysis, severe injuries that make it hard to move, and muscle weakness are at increased risk because they may not be able to pull themselves into a position where they can breathe.

Positional asphyxia can be a problem in hospitals, nursing homes, and psychiatric facilities. Sometimes patients are restrained for safely, and nurses do not apply the restraints properly. Other patients may smother under pillows or comforters because they move in bed and are unable to correct the problem on their own. Bed checks to make sure patients are in comfortable positions and can breathe easily are an important part of monitoring people in care facilities.


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