What Happens To The Body When Choking To Death

The idea of choking to death is enough to make anyone squeamish, especially those who have experienced choking on a piece of food or having something go down the "wrong pipe." The sensation of choking is often frightening and can lead to panic, which can potentially make the situation worse.

That said, there are no firsthand accounts of what choking to death is like. Is it similar to being strangled? How long does it take, and how much does it hurt? The fact is, dying alone while choking on something is a terrifying prospect, and even being around people doesn't mean surviving. In 2019, there were 5,228 choking-related deaths reported in the US. Here are some facts about choking that just might make you chew your food a little more thoroughly.

Photo: Game of Thrones / HBO

  • Swallowing Too Much At Once Can Cause A Blockage

    The human throat is designed to easily swallow food and liquid. Even if some food or liquid goes down the trachea instead of the esophagus, it can usually be coughed up. There are cases where nerve damage and preexisting medical conditions make choking more common, but for the average person, the body is designed to prevent airways from getting blocked. So, in order to choke on an object, it typically has to be large or have a specific texture.

    One of the most choked-on foods in the US is the hot dog. Hot dogs are typically dense and don't dissolve or break apart when swallowed, causing them to be a potential choking hazard. Solid candies, fish bones, and even toys can be dangerous for children.

  • Most People Are Unable To Make Any Noise While Choking

    While some might imagine choking to be a noisy, violent ordeal, a choking person often makes no noise. Rachel Anne Warren, a writer for Vice, wrote about her frightening first experience choking on a grilled cheese sandwich: "Choking is a quiet ordeal, but it doesn't feel slow," Warren explained. "It's pretty fast, in fact - that is, the dying part is always ready for you when you're in the middle of it."

    By blocking airways, choking more or less prevents a person from making any sort of distress noise because the larynx can't vibrate.

  • The Trachea Begins To Clench Shut

    When food gets stuck in the trachea, the body has a reaction that may seem counter-productive, even though it's trying to save itself. That reaction is called the drowning reflex. When the body senses something coming down the trachea, it reacts as if it's drowning and closes up to prevent the intake of water.

    While this is helpful for drowning, it proves dangerous when choking. The windpipe will then tighten around whatever is obstructing it, making it impossible to breathe.

  • A Choking Victim May Instinctively Grab Their Throat

    Many people instinctively grab their throat when choking. While it's unhelpful in dislodging food, it can be a way to alert others. In fact, clutching one's throat is often seen as the universal sign for choking.

    Individuals who are choking may also make other hand gestures to get attention, since they are unable to verbally ask for help.

  • Other People May Not Notice That Someone Is Choking

    Choking victims have reported that the people around them often don't realize that they're in distress. Some individuals who begin choking feel embarrassed and may try to cough up the blockage on their own.

    As choking victim Richard Madeley recounted, "I rose and braced my hands against the edge of the table, instinctively thumping it hard, arms rigid, to try to dislodge the beef. I did this several times, but only succeeded in making people turn and stare at me in irritation." Madeley went on to say that it wasn't until he started turning blue in the face that anyone realized something was wrong.

  • The Throat May Be In Searing Pain

    As a person chokes, their throat may begin swelling up around the blockage. Furthermore, attempting to cough up the lodged food can lead to throat pain. Even if a choking person is able to cough up the blockage, it has usually scratched the throat to a degree that swallowing will be painful for several days.

    Some people also report feeling as though they still have something caught in their throat due to severe scratching.