When a person’s air supply is impeded or cut off, they are at risk of injury and death from choking or suffocation. This can occur when breathing is disrupted by a physical blockage, such as an object in the windpipe, or when a person is trapped in a low oxygen environment.

In 2019–20, choking and suffocation accidents resulted in:

910 hospitalisations

3.6 per 100,000 population

 990 deaths

3.9 per 100,000 population

This represents 7% of injury deaths and 0.2% of injury hospitalisations.

Choking on objects is the most common cause of death in this category, while choking on food is the most common cause of hospitalised injury.

Elderly people have the highest rates of death by choking and suffocation, while young children have the highest rates of hospitalisation.

This report summarises data on unintentional choking and suffocation. Intentional injuries are included under Self-harm injuries and suicide or Assault and homicide.

This category is also referred to as other accidental threats to breathing, and is separate from drowning.

Causes of choking and suffocation

In 2019–20:

  • over three-quarters of the deaths in this category (78%) were caused by inhalation or ingestion of an object other than food
  • over half of the hospitalisations (53%) were caused by the inhalation or ingestion of food.
Table 1: Causes of choking and suffocation, 2019–20

Cause

Hospitalisations

%

Rate
(per 100,000)

Deaths

%

Rate (per 100,000)

Inhalation and ingestion of other objects (than food) causing obstruction of respiratory tract (W80)

324

35

1.3

770

78

3.0

Inhalation and ingestion of food causing obstruction of respiratory tract (W79)

485

53

1.9

114

11

0.4

Other (W75–78, W81–84)

104

11

0.4

108

11

0.4

Total

913

100

3.6

992

100

3.9

Notes

  1. Rates are crude per 100,000 population.
  2. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
  3. Codes in brackets refer to the ICD-10-AM (11th edition) external cause codes (ACCD 2019).

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database and AIHW National Mortality Database.

For more detail, see Data tables B5-6 and E7-9.

Seasonality and COVID-19

Hospital admissions due to choking and suffocation do not appear to exhibit a strong seasonal pattern. Cases were relatively steady throughout the year, with a slight increase from November to February.

In March 2020, the first lockdowns and social distancing measures associated with COVID-19 interrupted the usual activity of many Australians. It’s not clear if COVID-19 had any effect on the number of admissions to hospital for choking and suffocation injuries. There were 12% fewer hospitalisations from March to May than the same period of the previous year (Figure 1), however care should be taken when interpreting data based on small numbers.

See the interactive COVID-19 display for data and further discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on hospital admissions.

Figure 1: Hospitalisations due to choking and suffocation, by month, 2017–18 to 2019–20

Line graph with 3 lines, one for each financial year from 2017 18 to 2019 20. The lines illustrate the month by month admissions. The right hand section of the graph covering March to June is grayed out, to highlight the period of 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions first occurred.

Notes

  1. Months have been standardised to 31 days.
  2. A scale up factor has been applied to June admissions to account for cases not yet separated.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Variation by age

Rates of death due to choking and suffocation were highest for people aged 65 and over, while young children had higher rates of hospitalisation. In 2019–20:

  • 4 in 5 deaths (80%) and more than 1 in 3 hospitalisations (36%) were for people aged 65 and over
  • a quarter of hospitalisations (25%) were for children aged 0–4 (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Choking and suffocation hospitalisations and deaths, by age group and sex, 2019–20

The visualisation features 2 matching column graphs on separate tabs, 1 for hospitalisations and 1 for deaths. The columns represent sex within 6 life-stage age groups. The reader can select to display either age-specific rate per 100,000 population or number. The default displays males and females and the reader can also select to display persons.

For more detail, see Data tables A1-2 and D1–2.

Severity

There are many ways that the severity, or seriousness, of an injury can be measured. Using available data, three indicators of the severity of hospitalised injuries are:

  • number of days in hospital
  • time in an intensive care unit (ICU)
  • time on a ventilator.

Comparing choking and suffocation cases with all injuries in 2019–20:

  • the average duration of a hospital stay was about half as long (2.2 days compared with 4.5 days for all injuries)
  • the percentage of cases that included time in an ICU was 2.3 times as high
  • the percentage of cases that involved continuous ventilator support was 3.3 times as high (Table 2).
Table 2: Severity of choking and suffocation hospitalisations, 2019–20

 

Choking and suffocation

All injuries

Average number of days in hospital

2.2

4.5

% of cases with time in an ICU

5.4

2.4

% of cases involving ventilator

4.6

1.4

Note: Average number of days in hospital (length of stay) includes admissions that are transfers from 1 hospital to another or transfers from 1 admitted care type to another within the same hospital, except where care involves rehabilitation procedures.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

For more detail, see Data tables A12–13.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

In 2019–20, there were 37 hospitalisations and 21 deaths due to choking and suffocation among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

For more detail, see Data tables A1–3 and D4–9.

Remoteness

In 2019–20, people living in Remote areas had higher age-standardised rates of hospitalisation due to choking and suffocation than people living in Major cities (Figure 3) (Data table A9).

Table 3: Age-standardised rates (per 100,000) of hospitalisations and deaths due to choking and suffocation, by remoteness and sex, 2019–20

 

Hospitalisations (per 100,000)

Deaths (per 100,000)

Major cities

3.2

3.2

Inner regional

3.3

2.5

Outer regional

4.4

3.2

Remote

6.9

n.p.

Very remote

n.p.

n.p.

Note: Rates are age-standardised per 100,000 population.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

For more detail, see Data tables A7–A9 and D9–10.

For information on how the statistics by remoteness were calculated, see Technical notes.

More information

Defining injury hospitalisations and deaths: how injuries were counted

Technical notes: how the data were calculated

Data tables: download full data tables

Glossary