How Many People Die from Choking?

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Hard candy has been popular going back at least to the 1600s. Lollipops go back to the Civil War era or before. Life Savers were introduced more than a century ago in 1912, and Jolly Ranchers came along in 1949. The much more recent arrival of computers and the Internet, however, enables us to gather and crunch data, often causing us to see things we have taken for granted in a new light. We now know that more than 12,000 children in the U.S. ages 14 and below are treated in emergency departments each year for choking on food items. That’s the equivalent of 34 children a day across the country. And hard candy is at the top of the list of chokeable foods. In addition to the nonfatal choking incidents represented in the above statistic, about 57 children die each year from choking on food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The biggest causes of non-fatal food-related choking are:

  • Hard candy: 16%
  • Other kinds of candy: 13%
  • Meat: 12% (this category does not include hot dogs)
  • Bone: 12%.

The statistics, published in the August issue of Pediatrics, came from the first multi-year, national study of food-related non-fatal choking injuries. The study was done by the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, OH, using data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.   Although there have been significant efforts in recent years to reduce the incidence of children choking on small toys, the Ohio researchers described the much more common problem of choking on food as “a relatively under-addressed problem.” About 60% of non-fatal choking among children is food-related, according to the CDC. The Pediatrics study found that of children who are treated for non-fatal food-related choking, more than a third are infants 1 year or younger. Ten percent of treated children were hospitalized. All of these statistics do not include the many thousands of choking events that take place and are resolved at home without a trip to the emergency room. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends these precautions:

  • Do not allow small children to eat meals without supervision.
  • Insist that children sit down while they are eating. Do not allow them to run, play or lie down with food in their mouths.
  • For children under age 4, cut food into small pieces.
  • Make sure children chew their food well.

The AAP also has made recommendations for certain foods to be redesigned to reduce risk, and for some foods to be accompanied by warning labels.

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