Can a Baby Choke to Death on Mucus? Why & How To Prevent

| Reviewed By Amanda Lundberg, BSN, RN

In some cases, babies can suffer from choking and potentially fatal outcomes due to various factors, such as mucus. Due to their narrow respiratory passages, young infants are particularly susceptible to blockages which can result in difficulty breathing.

However, it’s not likely that your child will choke to death on mucus. Many times, babies will spit up excess mucus before it becomes a major issue.

MedicalNewsToday encourages parents to take their baby to the emergency room if they note any of the following:

  • A breathing rate of more than 60 breaths per minute that interferes with feeding or sleep
  • Rapid or hard breathing that makes feeding difficult
  • Flaring nostrils
  • Retractions (baby’s ribs suck in on each breath)
  • Moaning or grunting after each breath
  • A blue tint to skin, especially around lips or nostrils

If your baby is not breathing normally, is struggling to breathe, won’t eat, is swallowing excessively, or is extremely cranky, have him evaluated by a professional right away.

How To Remove Mucus From Baby Throat

In many cases, the baby will be able to clear the excess mucus on his own, often by spitting up or vomiting.

When your baby is choking on mucus and you need to act:

  1. Carefully lay your child facedown on your forearm with their head lower than their chest.
  2. Support their head and neck with your hand while keeping their body at a slight downward angle.
  3. Use the heel of your hand to give up to five back blows firmly yet gently between the baby’s shoulder blades.
  4. Check the mouth after each blow to see if it is clear.
  5. Use a bulb syringe to remove any mucus from the mouth that he can’t get rid of on his own.
  6. Make sure to squeeze the syringe before you place it into your child’s mouth so it will suction the mucus when you release your grip in the mouth.

If your baby is not breathing, call 911 immediately.

What Not To Do

  • Avoid using cotton swabs or small objects.
  • Don’t use nasal decongestant sprays.
  • Do not use vapor rubs.
  • Never use water or other liquid to flush the nostrils.
  • Don’t tilt the baby’s head too far back.
  • Do not administer medications without professional guidance.
  • Avoid aggressive suctioning.
  • Do not delay seeking medical attention if needed.

Gagging vs. Choking

Gagging and choking are two different responses to airway obstruction.

Gagging is a protective reflex that helps prevent choking.

It occurs when something triggers the back of the throat, leading to the contraction of the muscles involved in swallowing.

Gagging is a normal response, and it’s often a sign that the baby’s airway is not completely blocked.

With mucus, a baby may gag when trying to clear their throat or swallow excess mucus.

Gagging, in this case, is a natural and protective mechanism to prevent choking.

Choking is a more serious situation where the airway is partially or completely blocked, preventing normal breathing.

Choking is an emergency that requires immediate attention. Choking can happen if the mucus is thick and obstructs the airway.

Signs of choking include difficulty breathing, inability to cry or make sounds, and a bluish tint to the skin.

Baby Mucus – What To Know

Even babies can get stuffy noses that lead to congestion and drainage. It can be scary to experience, but it’s also very common.

The mucus in your child’s body has a purpose, and it can be affected by a variety of factors in your baby’s life. 

What’s Normal

Your child will have mucus. It will usually be clear and simply there to act as a lubricant for the mouth and throat.

When your child has a cold, it’s normal for mucus to increase and change colors.

Dangers of Mucus in Infants

The biggest danger of mucus for infants is when there is too much of it and it blocks the airways.

This can happen with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or other viruses. That’s why seeking treatment in these situations is essential.

When To Worry

If your child is not breathing normally, won’t eat, is swallowing excessively, or is extremely cranky, it’s time to see your doctor.

Purpose of Mucus

The mucus in your child’s throat helps lubricate his throat and nose while he is learning how to breathe through his mouth.

When you think about how your baby eats, you will notice that he has to breathe primarily through his nose for the first several months of his life.

Mucus helps lubricate the nose and the throat and can make it harder for germs to enter those areas.

A mother preparing to use a bulb syringe to remove mucus from her baby's nose.

Causes of Excess Mucus

Babies make excess mucus when their bodies are trying to keep undesirable irritants from entering the body.

If a child lives in a house with a smoker, for instance, expect excess mucus since your child’s body is trying to keep that smoke out of their lungs.

Your child may have allergies that increase mucus production, and dry air can be a trigger as well. A virus can also cause excessive mucus.

Be aware of the cleaners you use in your home since ingredients in these products can irritate your child’s nose, making the body produce more mucus for protection.

If your baby was delivered by C-section, it’s normal for him to experience some congestion for the first few days.

During a vaginal birth, mucus from the lungs and airways is squeezed out naturally, but this does not occur with babies born via Cesarean.

Why Mucus Is a Problem With Babies

For very young infants, mucus can be a problem because of how small their air passageways are.

My son developed pneumonia at nine days old, and the situation was made worse by the fact that his airways were the size of coffee stirrers.

Even moderately sized mucus made it hard for him to breathe.

Your child’s growing body makes mucus less of a threat because there is more room for air to make it through the passageways in the body.

How Babies Get Rid of Mucus

Coughing, gagging, and mouth breathing are all ways that babies try to deal with mucus.

You can help them by offering saline drops, keeping them hydrated with milk or formula, using a humidifier or steam to help clear their noses, and suctioning with a bulb syringe.

Can Babies Take Antihistamines?

No matter how stuffy your child’s nose is, the FDA does not consider antihistamines an option for kids under the age of two.

If your child needs support with allergy or mucus issues, talk to your child’s pediatrician about age-appropriate approaches.

Baby Choking on Mucus While Sleeping

If your baby is already struggling with excess mucus, bedtime can be scary.

Your child needs to sleep on his back, but this position can also make it easier for him to choke on mucus.

Use a humidifier in the room at night (this one is excellent and operates in total silence).

The moist air thins the mucus to allow for better drainage and prevents the mucus from becoming lodged in the airways.

Just be sure you follow all safety guidelines when using a humidifier.

Additionally, you may want to manually remove the mucus with either a bulb syringe or nasal aspirator.

These devices gently suck the mucus from the nostril, clearing the nasal passages.  

A mother using a bulb syringe to suction her baby's nose.

Baby Mucus Color Changes

The color of a baby’s mucus can provide some clues about their health, but it’s important to consider other symptoms your baby may be experiencing, such as coughing, difficulty breathing, fever, or changes in behavior.

  • Clear or White Mucus: Clear or white mucus is generally normal and may not be a cause for concern. It is often associated with a common cold, allergies, or teething.
  • Yellow or Green Mucus: Yellow or green mucus can be a sign of a bacterial or viral respiratory infection. It may indicate the body’s immune response to an illness. If the baby is otherwise healthy and doesn’t have other symptoms, this may not be a cause for immediate concern.
  • Brown or Rust-Colored Mucus: Brown or rust-colored mucus may result from dried blood. This could be due to irritation or small amounts of bleeding in the nasal passages. If you notice persistent blood-tinged mucus, alert your baby’s pediatrician.
  • Red Mucus: If you see bright red blood in the mucus, it’s essential to seek medical attention promptly. This could indicate more significant bleeding, and the cause should be investigated by a doctor.
  • Thick or Sticky Mucus: Mucus that is thick and sticky may be associated with dehydration or a respiratory infection. It can sometimes indicate a need for increased fluid intake.

How To Prevent Excess Mucus in Babies

Since antihistamines aren’t an option, you have to find other ways to prevent your baby from producing excess mucus.

Use saline drops to help loosen the mucus, and then clean it out with a bulb syringe or Nose Frida.

The Nose Frida was a favorite in our house because it allowed you to see how much mucus you removed, and it was easier to clean and keep free from mold than a regular bulb syringe.

You can also use a humidifier in your child’s room to help keep mucus thinned at night.

It’s also not a bad idea to talk to your doctor about your baby’s formula or what he is getting through your breast milk.

Certain foods or ingredients can increase mucus production, so you may want to cut those out of your child’s diet if mucus is an issue.