Medically referred to as asphyxia, suffocation occurs when the body is deprived of oxygen, causing abnormal and impeded breathing. When the body lacks oxygen, the organs and tissues will fail, potentially leading to death. Without oxygen, a person will become light-headed, dizzy and will eventually pass out. As the body processes the remaining oxygen in the blood, the body’s organs will fail and the victim will eventually die.

A common example of suffocating is choking, as an object lodges passes into a person’s airway and becomes lodged in the pharynx, larynx or trachea, and blocking the flow of oxygen into the lungs. Choking can also be caused by respiratory illnesses and sleep apnea. Other causes of suffocation include carbon monoxide inhalation, gas leaks, smothering and crush injuries leading to compressive asphyxia.

The inhalation of carbon monoxide is known as a silent killer because the gas has no odor and can’t be detected until it’s too late, making it one of the deadliest forms of accidental suffocation. When the carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream it cuts off the transportation of oxygen to the organs. The victim will seemingly become very sleepy and drift off into a slumber, unfortunately never waking up. Carbon monoxide leaks and poisoning are very similar to other gas leaks that have the same suffocating effect on the body.

Smothering occurs when the mouth and nostrils are both obstructed, either eliminating or greatly reducing the flow of air into the lungs. Cases of smothering can be either accidental or intentional. Accidents are common with children, as they can are susceptible to suffocation in their sleep, as well as common household items that could be fatal to them. Whereas smothering involves blockage of the mouth and nose, it could also be combined with compression of the chest, as in many crush injuries. As the chest is compressed, the ability of the lungs to inhale and exhale air is limited and eliminated in situations of overwhelming strength. When not fatal, compressive asphyxia can lead to internal bruising and fractures as well.

Children are most prone to suffocation accidents, especially around the home, where the majority of choking and strangulation accidents occur. Smaller food products such as fruits and vegetables, popcorn, candy, hot dogs, pretzels, etc. are the main cause of suffocation for children. Other non-perishable items like small toys, pocket change and balloons also play a major role in child suffocation in the home. Additionally, items like window blind strings, appliance cords, shoelaces, ribbons and some pieces of clothing can lead to strangulation.


Since 2000, the number of child suffocations per year has risen in the U.S. from less than 800 to more than 1,000. However, the number of suffocation-related injuries (which can include brain damage) has grown from approximately 18,000 to more than 20,000 annually. Even more children are treated annually in emergency rooms for choking-related injuries. Over the past five years, the amount of strangulation deaths among children ages 14 and under has risen as well. Eighty-eight percent of strangulation deaths occur with children under the age of four.

The majority of children die of suffocation in their sleep, and 60 percent of infants suffocate due to pillows, while poorly maintained and old cribs account for more than 30 infant strangulation deaths each year. In regard to toys, choking makes up almost 50 percent of all toy-related deaths nationwide.

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