Choking is a term that, as used popularly, can describe at least a few distinct scenarios or disorders:

  1. Minor aspiration. A person swallows and food or liquid “goes down the wrong tube” (down the airway), which provokes aggressive coughing.
  2. Life-threatening aspiration. A person swallows food (a piece of meat, for instance) that enters the airway and plugs it, requiring a Heimlich maneuver.
  3. Sensory neuropathic cough. A person uses the term “choking” to describe a severe episode of coughing, but without any aspiration of liquid or food.
  4. Laryngospasm. A person uses the term “choking” to describe the sudden inability to breathe and the noisy inspiration of a laryngospasm attack.

When a patient uses the term “choke,” the clinician must ask a series of questions to verify whether the fundamental issue is dysphagia with aspiration, coughing unrelated to dysphagia or aspiration, or laryngospasm. View this article for more information.