Asphyxiation occurs when the body does not get enough oxygen. This impairs normal breathing and may cause a person to become unconscious. It may also lead to death.

Keep reading to learn more about asphyxiation, including some causes, symptoms, risk factors, and prevention techniques.

Unwell woman on way to Hospital with asphyxiation. Share on Pinterest
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When a person breathes normally, they take oxygen into their lungs. The lungs then pass the oxygen into the bloodstream, where it passes into the tissues of the body.

Anoxia is the technical term for a lack of oxygen. If the brain does not get enough oxygen, it can cause a person to lose consciousness in seconds. If a person does not receive any oxygen within a few minutes, irreversible brain damage or death may occur.

Learn more about anoxia here.

The causes of asphyxiation can vary, but it usually occurs due to injury, breathing in chemicals, or a blockage in the airway.

Some more specific causes of asphyxiation include:


Asthma is a lung condition that can sometimes make breathing difficult. If a person has a severe asthma attack, they may not be able to get enough oxygen into their lungs. Without intervention, this may lead to asphyxiation.


Strangulation can cause air to stop entering the lungs. It can also block the flow of blood to the brain. This occurs when a hand, a ligature, or other object squeezes a person’s throat.

Foreign object

If a person gets a foreign object stuck in their throat, it may cause them to choke. If the choking is severe, the person may be unable to inhale oxygen.


Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction. During anaphylaxis, the immune system releases chemicals that cause the body to go into shock. This process can cause the airways to narrow and may cause the throat to swell. Without emergency treatment, a person may asphyxiate.


Drowning occurs when a person experiences breathing impairment due to inhaling water. During drowning, the liquid enters through the person’s mouth and nose, cutting off the body’s oxygen supply.

Drowning is one of the top 10 causes of death among children and young people.

Chemical asphyxia

Chemical asphyxia occurs when a person inhales a chemical that interferes with oxygen intake or use.

One example of chemical asphyxia is carbon monoxide poisoning. If a person breathes in carbon monoxide, it mixes with the red blood cells that are carrying oxygen around the body. If a person inhales too much carbon monoxide, the blood becomes unable to carry the oxygen. This can cause the cells in the vital organs to suffocate and die.

An older study notes the symptoms of asphyxia as:

A person experiencing asphyxiation may also have blue lips or a slight blue tinge to their skin. This is due to the low oxygen levels in their blood.

Depending on the specific cause of asphyxiation, treatment may vary. Some treatments for asphyxiation include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and oxygen therapy.

If someone becomes unconscious due to asphyxiation, their heart may stop beating. When a person provides CPR, they essentially take on the role of the heart and lungs, helping blood and oxygen move around the body.

During oxygen therapy, a person wears either a mask over their nose and mouth or just a tube in their nose. The mask or tube is attached to a cylinder that provides air containing more oxygen than usual.

The prevention of asphyxiation can also vary depending on the cause. This section will look at some prevention techniques against certain causes of asphyxiation.

  • Strangulation: A person may wish to consider learning some self-defense techniques to break out of a stranglehold.
  • Foreign objects: People should avoid putting nonedible objects into their mouth. They should also not put large pieces of food into their mouth. Parents and caregivers should keep small objects out of reach of children.
  • Drowning: To prevent asphyxiation from drowning, a person may wish to avoid unfamiliar waters for which they do not know the current. If a person does not know how to swim, they may wish to consider taking swimming lessons.
  • Anaphylaxis: People should avoid things that they know can trigger an allergic reaction. Also, a person living with certain allergies should always carry their EpiPen when they leave the house.
  • Chemical asphyxia: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list a number of ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. These include getting gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced regularly, installing a carbon monoxide detector, and not running a car or truck inside a garage attached to a house.
  • Asthma: People with asthma should always carry their inhalers with them.

The following groups may be at higher risk of experiencing asphyxiation:

  • people with asthma
  • individuals with allergies
  • infants
  • people with respiratory problems
  • individuals who have difficulty swallowing

Doctors refer to asphyxiation during birth as perinatal asphyxia. This occurs when the infant does not receive enough oxygen before, during, or after the birthing process. This can cause them to develop brain damage, breathing problems, or organ failure.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is one of the more common causes of death in newborns.

A systematic review looking at the potential risk factors for perinatal asphyxia notes that the following may place an infant at higher risk:

  • The person giving birth is aged 20–25 years.
  • The infant is premature.
  • The person giving birth has a fever during labor.

The risk may also depend on the number of pregnancies a person has had prior to the current one.

Some other reasons that perinatal asphyxia may occur include:

  • The person giving birth has a lack of oxygen due to underlying respiratory problems or the use of anesthetics.
  • The person giving birth has low blood pressure.
  • The uterus is not able to relax, which may mean that oxygen is unable to circulate the placenta.
  • The placenta separates from the uterus early.

Perinatal asphyxia is complex and may be difficult to predict and prevent. Treatment will depend on the infant’s overall health, the severity of the condition, and their tolerance of medication.

During the birth, if the healthcare team believes that there is a risk of perinatal asphyxia, they may provide the person giving birth with extra oxygen or conduct a cesarean delivery.

If the baby is not breathing after birth, they may require assisted ventilation and medication. This is to help them breathe and to control their blood pressure.

Autoerotic asphyxiation refers to a sexual act wherein a person cuts their oxygen supply to enhance sexual gratification.

People who try this tend to use an object to cause asphyxiation. For example, they may tie a rope tightly around their neck while masturbating. This stops blood flow to the brain and may create a pleasurable sensation, which may intensify an orgasm.

Never try autoerotic asphyxiation. It carries great risk and can result in death.

Asphyxia is a breathing impairment that occurs when there is insufficient oxygen in the body. This results in decreased delivery of oxygen to the brain and can cause a person to become unconscious or die.

Certain conditions and situations may put someone at higher risk of asphyxia, such as choking, drowning, asthma, or anaphylaxis.