Airway Obstruction: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

Older man experiencing reaction to airway obstruction while talking to clinician.

Can you think of a time when a tiny piece of food became stuck in your airways, blocking the natural flow of oxygen to the lungs? When most people think about airway obstruction, the first image that typically comes to mind is choking on food. However, trapped food is only one reason people experience this type of medical emergency. 

Allergic reactions, severe asthma symptoms, and even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can cause inflammation and a narrowing of the airways, thereby obstructing your ability to breathe independently.¹ 

Why Do We Experience Airway Obstruction?

Your airways are a complex system of tubes that allow you to inhale and exhale air without disruption. For example, in the back of your mouth, the trachea (i.e., windpipe) is part of your respiratory system and is located right next to your esophagus, which is part of your digestive system. 

The esophagus allows food and liquids to travel to the stomach, while the trachea helps air travel in and out of the lungs.² 

When you swallow, the tongue pushes the food to the back of your mouth, and a small flap of tissue (also known as the epiglottis) covers the trachea to prevent food or saliva from entering the lungs.³ With your trachea blocked, the esophagus contracts and pulls the food down to begin digestion.4

However, if the epiglottis does not fully cover the trachea, food can enter and block the airways, causing you to experience a choking sensation. 

Of course, food isn’t the only culprit. Our saliva can also make its way to our windpipe, causing us to cough uncontrollably as we try to remove the substance from blocking our airways.

You or a loved one may refer to this sensation as “going down the wrong tube,” and you’d be correct. The epiglottis plays an essential role in keeping air going down one tube and food and liquids going down another. However, as we mentioned, certain conditions can make this vital task more difficult.

Airway Obstruction and Lung Health 

If you’re living with a chronic lung condition, a common symptom you may experience is excess mucus production

Certain lung diseases like COPD, for instance, cause the walls of the airways to become thickened and inflamed,5 making it harder for air to flow in and out of your lungs. As a result, the damage to your airways makes it difficult to clear mucus from the lungs, causing mucus to build up and potentially develop into a respiratory infection. 

Bronchiectasis is another chronic lung disease that causes the airways to widen abnormally, making it harder to mobilize mucus in the lungs and clear it—which may result in inflammation and infection.

Additionally, certain neuromuscular conditions can lead to airway obstruction, as these diseases can cause patients to experience what’s known as dysphagia, a symptom that weakens the muscles needed to swallow saliva.6 

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Upper vs. Lower Airway Obstruction

Internal image of upper and lower respiratory tract comparison.The body is made up of an upper and lower respiratory tract, and as a result, airway obstruction can occur in either location. 

The upper respiratory tract consists of the nose, mouth, sinuses, pharynx (i.e., top of the throat), and larynx (i.e., your voice box). When we don’t chew our food into smaller pieces, or we eat too fast, we may not give our epiglottis enough time to cover the trachea, causing us to experience upper airway obstruction. 

The lower respiratory tract consists of the trachea, airways (i.e., bronchial tubes), and lungs. Since chronic lung conditions like bronchiectasis and COPD can cause excess mucus production, mucus repeatedly builds up in the lungs and collects in the airways, obstructing the natural flow of oxygen in and out of the body.7 

Again, this causes breathing difficulty and lower airway obstruction, which can worsen over time.

Signs of Severe Airway Obstruction

Anytime an object (like a piece of food) or liquid blocks your airways, choking is immediate and requires medical attention if you cannot remove the blockage through coughing.

However, in terms of mucus buildup from a chronic lung condition, you may experience an acute exacerbation (or flare-up) after developing inflammation or an infection that causes:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Chronic cough that produces mucus
  • Changes in mucus color
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to sleep

You may also feel anxious and find it difficult to breathe. When this happens, you’ll want to contact your clinician immediately, as this may require hospitalization, especially if you experience high fever, dizziness, or confusion due to the lack of oxygen.8

Treating Lower Airway Obstruction 

Airway clearance is the best defense in preventing lower airway obstruction from taking place. High frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) therapy devices like The SmartVest Airway Clearance System assist your lungs in breaking up and removing mucus buildup so oxygen can flow freely through the airways.

Our vest delivers repeated pulses of air that gently squeeze and release the chest wall. The controlled vibrations and oscillation of air help loosen, thin, and propel mucus upward, where it’s easier to cough out. With 360° chest wall coverage, SmartVest can help improve your quality of life by reducing healthcare costs, decreasing antibiotic usage, and decreasing hospitalization for flare-ups.9 

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Want to Learn More?

SmartVest works to help you breathe easier and feel your best. To learn more about how SmartVest can help, request an informational packet today and see what others have to say about using SmartVest for airway clearance.

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[1] Medical News Today. “What To Know About Choking on Salvia.” Retrieved from

[2] Cleveland Clinic. “Esophagus.” Retrieved from

[3] Medical News Today. “What To Know About Choking on Salvia.” Retrieved from

[4] Cleveland Clinic. “Esophagus.” Retrieved from

[5] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.” Retrieved from

[6] Medical News Today. “What To Know About Choking on Salvia.” Retrieved from

[7] American Lung Association. “Understanding Mucus in Your Lungs.” Retrieved from

[8] Medical News Today. “What to Know about COPD Flare ups.” Retrieved from

[9] Powner, J, et al. Employment of Algorithms of Care Including Chest Physiotherapy Results in Reduced Hospitalizations and Stability of Lung Function in Bronchiectasis. BMC Pulmonary Medicine, BioMed Central. 25 Apr. 2019.