Choking risk of hot dogs, candies is high for young children


By Dr. Lisa Thornton


I often see toddlers eating popcorn, taking a bite of a hot dog or sucking on a gel candy and I'm sure their parents aren't aware of the danger those foods can present.

Such foods can quickly lodge in a toddler's windpipe and prevent oxygen from going to the brain, causing death or permanent brain damage quickly. In fact, choking is one of the leading causes of death among children 3 and under and the risk remains significant up to age 5.

Toddlers are at highest risk for choking for several reasons: they naturally put things in their mouths; they have good front teeth to take a bite, but poorly developed molars to chew with; they have a very small airway compared to adults, so small items get stuck more easily; and they have a weaker cough to dislodge items that do get stuck.

Latex balloons account for the largest numbers of deaths because pieces of a balloon can form an airtight seal in the windpipe. Other common choking hazards are foods (like grapes, hot dogs, sausage, nuts, popcorn, raw carrots, apples, hard or gel candy or gum), coins, toys (like marbles, beads and balls), and other small items (like safety pins, pen or marker caps and button-type batteries). Walking, running, talking or laughing while eating can increase choking risk, and games like throwing food in the air and catching it in the mouth can also be hazardous.

By law, small balls, balloons, marbles and certain toys and games must be marked as a choking risk, but toys re-sold at yard sales and second-hand stores are usually unmarked since they are not in their original containers. Many children choke on toys that belong to an older sibling who leaves them within reach or small items that have fallen on the floor.

Parents have to remain alert for possible risks and should know CPR and choking intervention.

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children's Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at


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