Our lungs are a pair of organs shaped akin to pyramids; they’re connected to our trachea (aka windpipe) via our left and right bronchi, which serve to bring air to and from our lungs. Although our lungs come in a pair, they are actually asymmetrical: while our right lung is shorter and wider than our left lung, our left lung occupies a smaller volume overall. An indentation known as the cardiac notch sits on the surface of our left lung; it serves to create a space for our heart to rest. At their base, our lungs are bordered by our diaphragm: a flat, dome-shaped muscle that separates our abdominal and thoracic cavities. It contracts and relaxes as we breathe.
The function our lungs serve in our body is essential: they facilitate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide with our surroundings. Oxygen is necessary for us to carry out practically everything we do, and carbon dioxide is created as a waste product.
An airway obstruction, sometimes colloquially referred to as a lung obstruction, is defined by being a blockage in any portion of our airway, the complicated tubular system that moves air you inhale through your mouth and nose into your lungs. Obstructions could partially–or even completely–prevent air from reaching its final destination: your lungs. Because of this, airway obstructions can be considered minor or life-threatening emergencies that call for rapid medical attention.
Airway obstructions are classified depending on two things: where the obstruction happened, and how much it is blocking. Types include:
- Chronic airway obstructions can happen one of two ways: blockages that last for a while or ones that develop over a long period of time.
- Acute airway obstructions develop quickly; for example, these can occur if you choke on a foreign object.
- Complete airway obstructions do not permit any air to pass by them, preventing you from breathing.
- Partial airway obstructions permit some air to pass by; while you can still breathe with one, it’ll be hard.
- Upper airway obstructions occur in the area between your voice box (larynx) and your lips and nose.
- Lower airway obstructions occur between the narrow passageways of your lungs and your voice box.
There are many different ways that airway obstructions could develop in addition to the quintessential image of someone choking on food. These could include:
- Vocal cord problems
- Allergic reactions
- Trauma to your airway due to an accident
- Inhaling or swallowing a foreign object
- A small object being lodged in your mouth or nose
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Breathing in a significant amount of smoke during a fire
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Abscesses in your tonsils or throat
- Respiratory illness that leads to inflammation of the upper airways
- Swelling of your epiglottis or tongue
- Collapse of your tracheal wall, aka tracheomalacia
Children are at a higher risk of airway obstructions than adults, because they are more likely to put small objects such as toys into their mouths and noses, or could swallow before chewing food sufficiently.