Harvard Health Letter

The Heimlich maneuver

Use the Heimlich maneuver when someone is choking on something and cannot cough or speak — that means the person cannot breathe. Another sign is if the skin begins to turn blue. In these circumstances, the Heimlich maneuver can be lifesaving. Here's how to do it.

For an adult who is standing or sitting:

  • Stand behind the person and wrap your arms around his or her waist.

  • While making a fist, press your thumb into the person's abdomen, just above the navel but below the ribcage.

  • Wrap your other hand around your fist and then thrust upward quickly into the person's upper abdomen to expel the object.

  • Repeat until the object is expelled.

For yourself:

  • Stand behind a sturdy chair, grasping the top with both hands.

  • Place your upper abdomen against the top of the chair.

  • Thrust your body weight forcefully and rapidly against the chair. Repeat until the object is dislodged.

© Harriet Greenfield

Tips to prevent choking

  • Always drink plenty of liquids while eating, to keep your mouth moist and help soften food as it moves down the esophagus.

  • Cut food into small portions and chew thoroughly.

  • If you have acid reflux disease, medications can stop the regurgitation of acid that is damaging your esophagus.

  • If medication use has led to swallowing problems, try taking your pills at a different time of day or with an antacid.

  • Ask your doctor for a referral to a speech/language pathologist or physical therapist for information about head, neck, and mouth exercises to strengthen muscles and coordination.

  • Avoid excessively hot, cold, or spicy foods and liquids, as these may cause your throat to close up.

  • People suffering from neurodegenerative disorders or conditions that have narrowed the esophagus may require medical treatments and surgery to reopen the swallowing passage.

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