Airway Obstruction

There is nothing more essential to life itself than breathing. But if something blocks your airway, breathing becomes difficult. When it’s hard to breathe, it impacts everything else we do — eating, speaking, sleeping and exercising.

At Henry Ford Health, our laryngologists work closely with pulmonologists to diagnose airway obstructions. Together, they customize a treatment plan to suit each patient’s needs.

Airway anatomy

The upper airway includes the tubes and passages running from your nose and mouth down to your larynx (voice box). The lower airway includes the passages from your larynx down into your lungs.

Upper airway anatomy

The main structures in the upper airway include:

  • Nose: We most frequently breathe in and out through the nose.
  • Mouth: If nasal passages are blocked, you may breathe more through your mouth. Foods and liquids enter your digestive system through the mouth.
  • Larynx: Also called the voice box, the larynx contains your vocal cords and is essential to creating sound.
  • Epiglottis: This structure closes off the trachea (also called the windpipe) when you eat so you don’t accidentally pull food or liquid into your airway.

Lower airway anatomy

The main structures of the lower airway include:

  • Trachea: The windpipe is a hollow tube that sits in front of the esophagus. It carries air from the larynx to the bronchi.
  • Bronchi: These tubes branch off the trachea and extend down into the lungs. They deliver oxygen to the lungs.
  • Bronchioles: These tiny tubes branch off from the bronchi and are found throughout the lungs. They carry air to the alveoli.
  • Alveoli: Small, grape-like sacs lie at the end of each bronchiole. They facilitate the exchange of oxygen and carbon monoxide.

Types of airway obstructions we treat

There are various reasons why the upper and lower airways become obstructed. Different types of obstructions affect the upper or lower airways, each with different causes. We provide advanced treatments for all types of airway obstructions.

Upper airway obstructions

Swallowing a foreign object that gets lodged in the throat is a common cause of an upper airway blockage. Other causes may include:

  • Being intubated and on a ventilator for 10 days or longer
  • Traumatic injury to the larynx, such as an auto accident, sports injury or assault
  • Infection or inflammation
  • Congenital (present at birth) defects, such as folds in the throat cartilage, that can block airflow
  • Tumors

Lower airway obstructions

Conditions that affect the lower airway are often called obstructive lung diseases. These diseases result in a narrowed airway that makes breathing more difficult. Types of lower airway obstructions include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Emphysema

Take the next step

If you need a specialist’s care to treat voice or larynx disorders, we are here to help. Request an appointment today with one of our voice and larynx experts.


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