Harvard Health Letter

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Don't perform the Heimlich maneuver on a person who is choking but can still speak.

Each year, 3,000–4,000 Americans die from choking, or pulmonary aspiration — about the same as the number who die by drowning. Choking happens mainly during meals, and meat is the chief culprit. But food and small objects aren't the only causes. Swelling from a severe allergic reaction — or in an unconscious person, the tongue — can prevent air from flowing into the lungs.

Shared commute

Things go down the wrong way and cause us to choke because of an anatomical flaw that we share with most other air-breathing vertebrates. Our breathing tube, the windpipe or trachea, isn't segregated from the one we use for swallowing, the esophagus. Air, food, and drink all share the same commute down the throat until the trachea branches off, right around your Adam's apple.

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