Foreign body asphyxia

A preventable cause of death in the elderly



      To assess the prevalence of food/foreign body asphyxia in the elderly Viennese population in order to reduce the incidence of these fatal events.


      This is an autopsy-based, retrospective study in Vienna, Austria. Participants included all nonhospitalized (n =200) cases of choking in 1984 to 2001, from a total 42,745 consecutive autopsies performed at the Institute of Forensic Medicine. In addition, data from hospitalized adult cases of fatal choking (n =73) in 1984 to 2001, from the mortality registrar of Vienna, were included.


      The nonhospitalized choking victims were analyzed according to age (18 to 64 vs ≥65 years), sex, circumstances of death, and predisposing factors. Hospitalized cases were analyzed according to age, sex, and whether an autopsy was already performed by pathologists at the institution where they died. In the study period, 273 adults died of food/foreign body asphyxia, 73% of them out of the hospital and 27% in hospitals. Food/foreign body asphyxia in the elderly was characterized by a significantly higher asphyxiation of soft/slick foods (p <0.007) with agomphiasis (p <0.002), occurring most frequently during lunch (49%), and in 2.5% during feeding of neurologically impaired. In contrast, younger individuals choked significantly more often on large pieces of foreign material (p <0.002) and showed a significantly higher rate of blood alcohol concentration (p <0.001).


      This study demonstrates that semisolid foods are the cause of a large number of asphyxiations, especially among the elderly. Knowledge of the fact that semisolid foods are a high-risk factor in elderly individuals should be distributed in public and private healthcare systems, and awareness could be a first step in reducing the incidence of food/foreign body asphyxia.
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