How to Recognize Signs of Choking and What to Do!

Rebecca of and Diane of

This picture is me alive with Diane Cu of White on Rice couple on Sunday afternoon. Phew. “Say WHAT?” you ask.

You might think that as a professional food writer, recipe developer and cooking instructor (and thirty eight year old human) that by this point in life, I might just have a handle on how to eat properly, too. Right?

Well, in fact, no. Clearly I don’t. Let me back this story up a bit, though…

Last Friday I flew down to Orlando to attend the Food Blog Forum. This fabulous event put on by Jaden and Scott Hair, and Diane Cu and Todd Porter was to be attended and spoken at by a virtual who’s who of bloggers I had respected for years. Among those bloggers were David Leite, Elise Bauer, Julie Deily, and Lindsay Landis. I was thrilled to get the chance to connect with them at the Friday reception and went into Saturday’s classes ready to absorb all the wisdom they had to share with the rest of us. I connected with Elise Saturday morning just prior to breaking out of sessions for lunch. I’d wanted to thank her face to face for years for pointing me toward my beloved homemade root beer recipe and was overjoyed that I had finally delivered those thanks along with a hug.

I made a bee line for the conference room two doors over where lunch was being presented with bells and whistles and illuminated Tinkerbell plate flair by Disney’s children’s menu chefs. The room buzzed with the happy sounds of a hundred and fifty or so munching, laughing and chatting food bloggers and service professionals. I laid my hands on a delicious looking plate of food and attempted the trifecta of talking, walking and eating. That’s the first place I went wrong. Since I wasn’t at the table, I didn’t cut my food as small as I normally would. It wasn’t a slab of food I popped into my mouth, but it wasn’t a genteel bite either. And in a moment where I’m still not clear what happened, that bite of food slid to the back of my throat and lodged itself firmly over my windpipe.

I could not breathe. I could not cough. I could not speak.

I was completely terrified.

I then did what every single food service training and first aid training I’ve ever been to warned against doing. I tried to save face (because I knew that food had to come out of my mouth instead of going down) by walking briskly toward the door where I could hopefully cough and propel it outward. In my singled minded race for the door, I laid my hand on the back of Elise Bauer -who I had waited so long to thank- and pushed her to the side. I got out the door and tried to cough and that’s where I knew I was in very big trouble. There was no way to cough because to cough, you have to take air in first and baby? There was nothing coming in OR out. My head started swimming and -this isn’t pretty, but it’s true- my eyes watered and I had a river of drool pouring out of my mouth because I couldn’t swallow.

I’m not going to say my life flashed before my eyes but I will tell you at that moment when I realized it was dire, I had two thoughts.

“Lindy. The boys. Get help now!”

I ran back for the door and banged my hand as hard as I could on it to draw the attention of anyone who was nearby because I couldn’t talk. Have you ever tried to call for help and had ZERO ability to do it? That’s where I was. Thank heavens I wasn’t so far gone I couldn’t bang on a door.  A couple of chefs and Disney representative looked my way and I held my hands up to my throat in the Universal Sign of Distress*.

*I’m going to talk more about this in a moment. Please… if you don’t want to read anything else, scroll to the bottom and read the information I’ve linked you to below. I’m serious.

I knew the chefs would’ve had the same training over the years that I had and would know enough to grab someone who knew how to help. I couldn’t have been luckier in where I choked if I tried even though I did everything wrong. A chef looked at me and asked, “Are you choking?” I nodded my head emphatically. He asked, “Do you need me to do the Heimlich?” I nodded even more emphatically and let me tell you, by that point, I knew I was close to passing out. He came up behind me, threw five good slaps at my back between my shoulder blades, wrapped his arms around me and gave one serious push in and upwards against my diaphragm. Thank the Lord in heaven that piece of pork and potato came flying out of where it had been lodged. I spit it out, gasped for air and starting coughing HARD. I’ve never been so happy to be drooling, have my eyes running enough to look like I was sobbing, and experiencing a coughing jag in public in all of my life. God love those Disney representatives. They helped me to a chair, brought me two glasses of water and kept their eyes on me while I gathered my wits and slowed the coughing. I assured them I was okay then and did not need medical attention (Yes. They asked. Repeatedly.)

I walked to the bathroom on rubbery legs to tidy myself up, then wandered back into the conference room a bit dazed. I found Elise and apologized for pushing her aside explaining what had happened while trying to keep my hands from shaking. She looked at me shocked. “I had no idea that was going on, Rebecca!” was her response. What was so clear and dramatic in my brain went unnoticed by all but one friend who had thought I was running for the door to throw up. Was it because no one there was observant enough? NO. I cannot emphasize that enough. It was because I totally endangered myself by trying to look normal and hide to preserve my dignity.

Can I say that again? I endangered myself.

How to Recognize Signs of Choking in Someone Else

Have I freaked you out at all? Do you know how to tell if someone is choking? Sometimes it’s obvious, but if someone tries to hide what’s going on like I did, it may be harder to tell. Here are some signs or symptoms of choking, courtesy of the Better Health Channel.

  • Universal Sign of Distress. This is when someone has wide eyes and is clutching their throat with one or both hands.
  • Gagging. If the person appears to be gagging or retching and nothing but drool or nothing at all is coming out.
  • Coughing. If someone coughs uncontrollably this can be a sign of choking.
  • Wheezing. If a person appears to be struggling mightily for breath or is audibly wheezing this can be a sign that the airway is blocked or partially blocked.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Red face.
  • Inability to talk at all or at full volume.
  • Panicked or distressed behaviour.

…This is all assuming you are the one who isn’t choking. But what if the tables are turned and you’re in the position I’m in? Many people clutch their necks as a reflex. I did not. I had to tell myself to do it.

What do you do if YOU are the person choking?

  • Do NOT leave a room to avoid embarrassment. Stay where other people are and get their attention immediately.
  • Try to breathe, swallow, cough or say a few words.
  • Do your best to remain calm.
  • If you’re not doing it as an impulse, raise your hands to your neck and use hand gestures to indicate to those around you what is happening. This is recognized universally as a sign of choking and is referred to as the Universal Sign of Distress.
  • Cooperate with the person helping you.

So what do you do if you’re alone and choking?

  • I won’t lie. This is now one of my personal nightmares. Take a moment or two to familiarize yourself with the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations on how to clear an obstruction from your airway by yourself. It may sound like a macabre use of time, but friends, it can save our life. You can’t think clearly (TRUST ME) when this is happening to you and you won’t have time to Google it. It’s just good sense to know how to take care of yourself in that situation. Take a few minutes and talk to your kids about how to do it (another personal nightmare, let me tell you.) Don’t regret not taking this chance.




  1. says

    Choking terrifies me. Absolutely so scary. I haven’t choked like that since I was a kid, but I remember that feeling of panic when you can’t breath. My youngest child has had several major choking incidents, once where I had to call 911 for help because she was turning purple. I have first aid training and know what to do… however I always always hesitate and panic. So glad you are ok, and someone was there to help you!!

  2. says

    Holy shit! I have to say that I would have done the very same thing that you did. Thank GOD you are okay and that you were able to alert someone that you were in distress. Thanks for writing this post and sharing “what to do” if this happens to you. So scary!!!

  3. says

    Thank you for sharing this, it is so scary! I had to do the Heimlich to my son a couple of years ago, and I still have nightmares about it. I will show both of my kids what to do if they are alone, thanks to this post!

    So glad you were with capable, caring hands!

    • says

      Thank you so much, Zoe. I know that my kids are going to be trained in the heimlich tomorrow. My greatest fear at this point is if they’re alone, eating, choking, and don’t know what to do. I’m awfully glad there were capable helpers around me, too. If you have to choke, I recommend you be surrounded by food service professionals or doctors. :)

  4. Karen D. says

    I am shaking just reading about it! Just think, your bravery in writing about it may save the life of one of your readers. So scary!

  5. says

    Oh my goodness, friend! I am so thankful you are ok. Wow. Thankful to the Disney folks for helping you out. Great educational post!

  6. says

    OMG what a terrifying experience! I can’t even imagine what you went through. I’ve taken a few first aid courses (albeit the last time was four years ago) and my nightmare is choking or having a loved one choke. I seriously think I would be immobilized by fear. I am so glad you’re ok and that there were people around you who knew what to do. Thank you for sharing this information – the education is much needed!

    • says

      I certainly didn’t act the right way at first, but the training kicked in. I think it’s so important to get that because when the chips are down, you really DO remember!

  7. says

    Oh my goodness, Rebecca – that is terrifying!! I am so, so glad all ended well and for that man who happened to come by and knew what to do. Thank you so much for sharing what happened.

    • says

      Oh, Kathy. I am, too. All those years I spent in professional kitchens paid off! I have the first aid choking signs that were on the walls in every kitchen I ever worked seared in my brain! Thank you for sharing it with your readers. I hope it ends up helping someone!

    • says

      I am so grateful that people who were there are saying they didn’t know what was happening to help drive my point home. People who are choking NEED to know how to react!

  8. says

    Wow!!! What a terrifying experience. I have always had a fear of choking, but have never really choked on anything but my own saliva. You handled it, and I’m so thankful you have done this post, it’s much needed. What hit home the most was how those around you really didn’t know what was going on.
    Welcome home, and I’m so glad you are OK!

  9. says

    Omg! So scary! I know I would have done exactly the same thing by trying not to draw attention to myself, ridiculous now you think of it! Thank you for drawing attention to this. Glad you are ok!

  10. says

    When my oldest kids were really little (3 and 5) I used to pass them a little goldfish to keep them happy in the car rides! I once looked in my rearview mirror and my daughter was absolutely panicked and scared, and obviously choking. I had to get out of traffic and pull off the road to help her. Thank GOD she dislodged it by herself, needless to say, eating in the car didn’t happen for a long time in our family. I still think about it.

  11. says

    Oh my goodness. That is so scary I don’t know what I would of done if in that position. I am so happy to hear that you are ok and we’re able to get help. Thank you for this information it is on my list of things to do this summer with my kids to get them trained in case of an emergency.

  12. says

    Oh, friend. I’m glad you are okay. I was worried to death about you, especially the after-part which is even more scarier to think of what could have happened. Someone was watching over you! Love you!

  13. says

    Rebecca, First off, I am so glad you are ok and was able to receive help. Thank you for posting this to remind all of us and educate us.

  14. says

    Rebecca. I could totally cry right now. I had no idea. Did we have a discussion about pizza dough right after and I didn’t know about this?? I’m so glad you are ok. Thanking God for that chef who knew what he was doing.


    • says

      You are exactly right, Aggie… I walked in, ate a few more bites of food (denial much?) and then chatted pizza dough with you. I’m so glad we met, and look forward to a long friendship! I feel so blessed I have been in a room full of people who could help me. I can’t imagine the fear of being alone and going through that.

  15. Pamela says

    Oh, my friend. My heart just stopped and now I am crying.
    I’m so glad you are okay.
    Thank you for using your scary happening as a teachable moment.

  16. says

    Good lord girl! I am SO glad you had the where with all and the dignity to walk back in and get some help. I don’t know that many of us would have done the same. Even better, you’re sharing your story and some pretty darn useful info that we all could benefit from. xoxo

  17. says

    Oh, wow, I had no idea! Thank goodness you had your wits about you enough to go to the right person. I’m not sure I would have thought to do that. Thank you for this!

    • says

      Yeah- that urge to remain dignified and not hurl food from your mouth is pretty strong, but boy… It is so worth fighting that urge!!

  18. says

    Hokey Smokers! Thank you for writing this post! Oh my I have educated myself and thought often of how to help a child or another adult if they are choking, but never really gave much thought to what I would do if I choked, I would have probably done the same thing…dashed for the door. How’s Elise back did you bruise her as you sped by and pushed her out of the way? ; ).

    • says

      I hope I didn’t bruise her!!! Before that moment I had never considered what my response would be if I choked either. I’m very pleased that so many folks are thinking it over now!

  19. says

    Woah! I had NO idea this happened at all. I’m so glad you’re okay. You both brought me to tears thinking about it but also made me laugh “I’ve never been so happy to be drooling”. You have a way with words and story telling. But truly – I’m glad you’re okay and glad to have finally met you in person!

    • says

      Thank you so much, Rachel! It was wonderful to finally have the chance to meet you face to face. It’s funny… There were only two people in the room who knew I made for the door urgently: my friend who thought I was throwing up and Elise who I pushed. I am so grateful, though, that I was in a room full of people so I could get someone’s attention!!!

  20. says

    Rebecca! I was reading this at kiddo’s piano lesson last night with tears in my eyes. Then, totally teared up relating your story to my boys. SO THANKFUL that you are ok. I cannot even imagine how SCARY that must have been.

    Thank you for the great information. I know I learned this many moons ago, but definitely need a refresher. I absolutely would have tried to save face, too. Next time I’m a Disney, I’m going to search out your savior and give him a huge hug.

    Girl! You’re only allowed milkshakes from NOW ON!

    • says

      Well, shoot. Milkshakes only sounds pretty darned good to me, Bridgie! I vote for that!! I’ve asked Jaden to find a contact for me so I can thank the guy who saved me. I was too shaken up at the time to think of getting his name.

      It was definitely scary and I am feeling so grateful and blessed to have that voice in my head that said get help. I squeezed the heck out of my kids and talked to them about what to do right when I got home. ♥

  21. says

    WOW!!! I am so glad you are okay and that you chose to share your story. I had a choking scare while driving with my mom. Long story short, I also had that moment when I realized I was in trouble. Luckily, I was able to self-dislodge….drooling and all. Your story brought tears of recognition and gratefulness for both you and myself.

    You are sooooo right to talk about feeling embarrassed as the first reaction. That was my immediate response before knowing I choking “for real”. THANK YOU for mentioning this. I am sure you will save at least one life!

    • says

      It’s a weird feeling, isn’t it Anita? So scary at the moment you realize it’s not a drill. I’m so grateful there were people around to help!

  22. says

    Earlier today, I was thinking I should stop by and leave a comment to say how much I enjoy your blog–the great recipes, the Michigan connection, the funny stuff–and then I read this post. Yikes! And thank God you’re still alive! And thanks for sharing so we can all learn from your close call. (Whew!)

  23. says

    I had tears in my eyes reading this. I am so glad you are ok. A friend of my husband’s choked to death in a crowded restaurant :(
    I hope it’s ok that I shared this post on my blog’s facebook page.

    • says

      Oh Winnie… it’s more than okay. Thank you. I’m so sorry for your friend and I’m hoping that my close call ends up helping someone!

  24. says

    I am so glad you’re ok! My mom had a similar experience at her workplace…at a doctor’s office. She was alone in the breakroom and thankfully had the presence of mind to find someone to help her. It is a scary thing for sure! I choked twice in my life like that according to my mother – I was too young to remember them. Thankfully there are things we can do to help, and this article is so helpful with recognizing the signs and knowing what to do. I am going to share this for sure. It could help save a life! Thank you for being so candid and real and being willing to share.

      • says

        Yes, she described it very similarly to what you went through. There was that moment of “This is not going to get better. I need help NOW!” I’m just glad there was someone there to help. I’m glad there was someone there for you, too. After reading this, I am definitely going to brush up on my first aid training, especially the Heimlich!

    • says

      I was more than a little weirded out by the whole thing and didn’t mention it much that day. I only shared it with a handful of people (I called my husband on the phone right after it happened then told the friend who thought I was running to throw up and just a couple other folks.) I’m just so glad it turned out the way it did!

  25. Susan P says

    A woman died from choking on a hot dog at a Cubs game on May 5th. While the National Anthem was going on, she collapsed over the seat in front of her. No one around her was aware she was choking. She died two days later. She was a 28 year-old school teacher. This is a very serious situation. Glad you are ok. Thanks for passing on the info of what to do.

    • says

      I’ve been mulling it over in my head quite a bit since it happened and I’m pretty convinced that the majority of deaths from choking just don’t have to happen. Education is key, truly, but not just for people who are AROUND people choking. I think we all need to have it drummed into us that embarrassment needs to be fought when we’re choking. Getting help is our best chance at making it!

  26. says

    Chills at the thought of what you went through; it can happen so fast. I know; I’ve been with someone who had some food get lodged in her throat; by the time anyone knew something was wrong, we had to act FAST!

    Great informative post and oh…by the way? SO glad it was not worse and you are able to share the importance of your experience and knowledge with others.

  27. says

    Oh my goodness! As I read this, I started I year up at the thought of your experience. SO scary!! This is wonderful information and I’m so happy you’ve put it out there for everyone. And most importantly, I’m SO happy to what that you’re alright.

    • says

      Thank you, Kate. I’m so relieved and I’m so glad I dropped my pride. I hope everyone else who reads this never has the opportunity to use the knowledge, but by golly, I hope if someone needs it they’ve read it!

  28. Ellen Renee says

    This hits so close to home for me. I have had many choking scares in my life and have had that exact response….hide! I don’t want to embarrass myself…so ridiculous. My biggest fear though is to choke while at work. I work in the computer department for a large factory on 2nd shift…I am the only person in the building on my shift. It is a VERY small town with no local medical services (a 911 call… would be at least 20 minutes away). I did follow your link to read up on the info to clear an obstruction on my own. I pray that I keep my wits if it were to happen. Thank you for sharing.

  29. says

    Oh, how freaking scary! I’ve had to give the Heimlich to my daughter and have thought through how I might give it to myself. SO glad there was someone nearby to help you!!! Something everyone should know how to do….great PSA.

    PS…sorry I didn’t get to chat with you!

  30. Stephanie says

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am educating my family tonight! Is there a chart we can all pin or something? I am very happy you are okay and now you are helping us all!

  31. says

    My 25 y/o son choked on roast beef when he was 11 and even though I was a trainer in AHA CPR at the time, it was still frightening for me, almost like a dream. Alexis said that I never hesitated except to ask, “Are you sure you really can’t breathe because I’m about to possibly break your ribs.” One pump lifted him off of his feet and the roast flew out and the color came back to his face.

    So glad that you are alright and thanks for posting this reminder.

  32. says

    Rebecca!! I can’t believe that I am just now reading this, had no idea what happened. What a terrifying experience that must have been. So glad all is well and you are sharing this with all of us. It really can happen at anytime. So scary!!

  33. says

    WOW! I had no idea that had happened to you. I am glad that everything came out ok (no pun intended). Thanks for sharing your story and what to do if we ever experience it.

    • says

      Oh Cindy, it WAS scary. I can’t lie… I’ve relived it a couple of times. It was so nice to meet you, too. Will you be at BHF? I promise to chew more carefully there. :-)

  34. says

    Holy CRAP! I saw your face come up when I was on BlogHer and then I read the title of the post…I can’t even imagine how scared you must have been and am so thankful the chef knew what he was doing.

  35. Brenda says

    Thank God! It’s hard to imagine a scarry circumstance. I, too, have the problem of not wanting anyone to know when I’m having a problem. The thing to remember is that there is no personal dignity in dying alone in a bathroom because I was too vain to ask for help. I am thankful that you went back into that room. It has certainly served a greater pirpose. Think of all those you helped! Thanl you for sharing. You may have saved someone’s life.

    • says

      Thank you so much, Brenda. I surely hope no one needs what I wrote, but I also hope that if they do need it they’ll remember it!

  36. says

    I am so glad you’re okay, and I am so sorry for the horror. That Chef certainly was in the right place at the right time. God bless him and you for sharing this with all of us!

  37. says

    Oh my gosh, I had no idea this even happened. Which is clearly horrible of me. I am so glad you are okay. I can’t even imagine the terror I would have felt. I think so many of us would have done the exact same thing. We all want to make good impressions and not draw attention to ourselves, but my goodness you could have…I can’t even finish that sentence. Thank goodness you are okay. I wish I would have been there to help, or alert someone cuz honestly I would have likely panicked. So glad the dude knew exactly what to do. And don’t you just love Elise. She’s such a gem. Great shot of you and Diane as well.

    • says

      I do love Elise! Thank you, Kim! I have no doubt that many of the folks in that room would’ve helped me had I not been a fool and bee-lined for the door! What a great bunch of people were there, including you!

  38. says

    I recall seeing you just after it happened and have been thinking about it since. I am grateful you came back in the room and got help. I am also grateful I meant you – I truly felt your genuine spirit and that we connected and I am grateful.

  39. says

    This could happen to anyone and it’s so important to know what to do. Thank you so much for writing this post. So glad you’re okay.


  1. […] There was one scary moment that most of us weren’t aware of. I met Rebecca from Foodie With Family at the bowling event, and chatted with her several times throughout the conference day. I had no idea she choked during lunch. One of the Disney chefs saved her life. She wrote a wonderful post about recognizing signs of choking and what to do, so please, read it!!! […]

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