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Asphyxial Deaths in Criminal Cases

Authored by - Ruma Minj

Keywords - asphyxia, lack of oxygen, excess carbon dioxide, inadequate oxygen supply, asphyxial death.


The term ‘asphyxia’ means the absence of pulsation. It is generally used in the field of Forensic Sciences and in layman terms, it means the lack of oxygen. Asphyxia is best described as interference with respiration, due to any cause that could be mechanical, environmental, chemical etc. This article shall describe asphyxia in a comprehensive manner and enumerate the different causes of asphyxia deaths.


Asphyxia is the lack of oxygen or excess of carbon dioxide in the body that subsequently results in unconsciousness and more often than not, death. It is usually caused by the interruption of breathing or due to the inadequate oxygen supply for the heart. It is a condition where the body does not receive enough oxygen to carry on normal function or has too much carbon dioxide to function properly. Without an adequate supply of oxygen, the nerve cells in the brain begin to die in about 2 to 4 minutes and cell death is irreversible.

Causes of Asphyxial Deaths

Asphyxia occurs when the pathway of air is physically blocked, as a side effect of an injury or accompanied by other medical conditions. Some of the consequences that arise when the air path of an individual gets physically blocked are as follows:

1. Choking

2. A foreign object lodged in the respiratory system or throat

3. Suffocation

4. Strangulation

5. Drowning

6. The tongue blocking the airway when a person is unconscious.

Injuries causing Asphyxiation

The injuries or illnesses which can be responsible to cause asphyxiation are:

1. Collapsed lung

2. Inhalation of toxic fumes (like carbon monoxide)

3. Whooping cough

4. Diphtheriaor Bacterial infection

5. Croup

6. Heart failure

7. Swollen veins in the head or neck

8. Paralysis

9. Asthma

10. Broken neck

11. High blood pressure

12. Allergic reaction

13. Sleep apnea

14. Drug overdose

These are somesituations where asphyxia may occur and lead to the death of the individual.

Types of Asphyxia

Physical Asphyxia

The first kind of asphyxia is called physical or mechanical. It happens when a force or an object blocks an individual from breathing normally. There are lots of circumstances that may lead to physical asphyxia. Hereinbelow are some of the examples of physical asphyxia:

1. Choking: This happens when food or an object gets stuck in their pathway and blocks the air from getting to the lungs. The elders have a greater chance of this happening to them, especially those who live alone, wear dentures, or have trouble swallowing. Babies and toddlers also have higher odds of choking on large pieces of food or objects, they put in their mouths.

2. Aspiration: Aspiration happens when something that an individual eats or drink goes down the wrong pipe and enters into the air passage. Drowning is the most common type of aspiration.

3. Suffocation or Smothering: Suffocation happens when something heavy covers the face or the chest and prevents an individual from breathing. It also occurs when a person is in a place where oxygen runs out as the result of a closed or airtight space.

4. Strangulation: It occurs when a cord, rope or other objects, long enough to go around an individual’ sneck and presses on the airway. This blocks the air from reaching to lungs.

5. Drug overdose: Opioids also affect an individual’s breathing function. When a person consumes too high a dose, it slows down the breathing function to the point that the body is not able to take in enough oxygen that is essentially required.

6. Birth asphyxia: Sometimes, an unborn child may get too little oxygen during pregnancy. This might happen because of the lack of oxygen in the mother's blood or problems with the placenta. During delivery, the baby can also not get oxygen because of umbilical cord problems or long labour complications.

7. Seizure: It can cause asphyxia in several ways. Epileptic seizures may cause a sudden pause in an individual breathing function and lower the oxygen of the body to life-threatening levels. Also, during a seizure, the body may move in such a way that their pathway gets covered and results in blocking of breathing.

8. Illness injuries, like heart failure, a broken neck, or an allergic reaction that causes airways to swell and close, can also cause physical asphyxia.

Chemical Asphyxia

The second type of asphyxia is called chemical asphyxia. In this kind of asphyxia, a chemical is responsible for keeping away oxygen from reaching the cells. Chemicals that can cause asphyxia are as follows:

1. Carbon monoxide: This is a colorless, odorless gas that comes from burning different types of fuel. If any individual breathes in too much carbon monoxide then the gas builds up in the body and replaces the oxygen in your blood.

2. Cyanide: It stops the cells from taking oxygen in. Individual life is at risk of cyanide poisoning if the person breathes smoke during a fire, has contact with certain industrial chemicals, or works in jobs that involve mining or metalworking for a prolonged period of time.

3. Hydrogen sulfide: This gas smells like a rotten egg. It can come from sewage, liquid manure, sulfur hot springs, and natural gas. If an individual inhales too much hydrogen sulfide then it will prevent oxygen from entering the cells, as cyanide does.

Asphyxial deaths

There is a variation in the incidents of asphyxia deaths in different parts of the country. This may be due to the variation in cultural, ethnic, geographical and genetic differences. Hanging is the commonest form of asphyxial death followed by drowning, choking and strangulation. Maximum incidents of asphyxial deaths are seen in the age groups ranging from 21 to 30 years and then in 11 to 20 years of age which clearly indicates that young adults are the main victims of asphyxia deaths.


In the present scenario, suicidal deaths, as a result of hanging or drowning seems to be the major contributing causes of asphyxial deaths. Both these kinds of deaths indicate frustration and carelessness on the part of the population. This must be prevented and needs to be rectified on an urgent basis. A well designed and comprehensive program is required to identify the causative factors and prevention of suicidal behaviors. Measures to improve the socio-economic conditions through reforms in the fields of education, health, increase in employment opportunities are expected to lessen the existing stress and strain of the society. This will help to decrease the incidents of suicidal, homicidal, or accidental cases of asphyxia.