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Ask Dr. Stork: What do I do if I start choking when I'm alone?

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    Dr. Travis Stork

Q: What do I do if I start choking when I'm alone?

A: It's great to have a plan if you start choking, because you'll be feeling pure panic. The panic is even worse when you're alone. I know this from experience. Just after college, before I had any medical training, I was driving when I choked on a piece of candy.

Fortunately, as soon as it happened, I began to cough. Coughing is your first line of defense against choking, and the good news is that people often do it automatically. When something becomes lodged in your upper airway, your natural reflex is to expel air from your lungs and dislodge it. In my case, the candy flew right out across the dashboard. 

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But depending on how much of your airway is blocked, coughing might not work. In that case, you need to self-administer abdominal thrusts. Look for a stationary object, like the back of a chair, and push the area just above your navel against it several times. This puts upward pressure on your diaphragm, pushing air out of your lungs, hopefully with enough force to dislodge the object. If a chair's not handy, make a fist and push in and up, just above your navel—much like the Heimlich maneuver. It's possible to injure internal organs doing this, so get checked afterward.

Even if there's someone within hearing distance, you won't be able to make loud verbal sounds. Making a commotion could bring help, but that effort shouldn't take priority over acting alone, because with choking, seconds count.

(Avoid the emergency room with these healthy life lessons from Dr. Travis Stork.)

TRAVIS STORK, MD, is an ER physician, cohost of TV's The Doctors, and the author of The Lean Belly Prescription.