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Blockage of the upper airway occurs when the upper breathing passages become narrowed or blocked, making it hard to breathe. Areas in the upper airway that can be affected are the windpipe (trachea), voice box (larynx) or throat (pharynx).

The airway can become narrowed or blocked due to many causes, including:

  • Allergic reactions in which the trachea or throat swell closed, including allergic reactions to a bee sting, peanuts, antibiotics (such as penicillin), and blood pressure medicines (such as ACE inhibitors)
  • Chemical burns and reactions Chemical burns. Chemicals that touch skin can lead to a reaction on the skin, throughout the body, or both.
  • Epiglottitis (infection of the structure separating the trachea from the esophagus)
  • Fire or burns from breathing in smoke
  • Foreign bodies, such as peanuts and other breathed-in foods, pieces of a balloon, buttons, coins, and small toys
  • Infections of the upper airway area
  • Injury to the upper airway area
  • Peritonsillar abscess (collection of infected material near the tonsils)
  • Retropharyngeal abscess (collection of infected material in the back of the airway)
  • Throat cancer
  • Tracheomalacia (weakness of the cartilage that supports the trachea)
  • Vocal cord problems

Treatment depends on the cause of the blockage.

  • Objects stuck in the airway may be removed with special instruments.
  • A tube may be inserted into the airway (endotracheal tube) to help with breathing.
  • Sometimes an opening is made through the neck into the airway (tracheostomy or cricothyrotomy).

If the obstruction is due to a foreign body, such as a piece of food that has been breathed in, doing abdominal thrusts can save the person's life.

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