What Happens When Food Goes Down the Wrong Pipe?

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It’s an unpleasant experience that almost everyone has had to deal with at one time or another: eating turns into a disaster when food travels down the wrong pipe in your throat. The throat does perform a dual function, allowing us to breathe and swallow, so it is no surprise that mix-ups can occur. Still, it is worth wondering why this uncomfortable error occurs and how it may be avoided while eating and drinking.

Understanding the complexity of swallowing

The act of swallowing actually uses more than 2-dozen muscles, so there is room for errors. When you chew food or take a drink, you will unknowingly prepare to swallow as your trachea closes and your esophagus opens to let the food travel toward the stomach. But let’s say you are caught laughing while you try to swallow or you are eating in a hurry. In these cases, food may actually get caught in the airway.

Following food down the trachea

You will have the urge to cough if food is trapped in the airways, and you should not resist this urge. Coughing will dislodge the food and often get it back in the correct pipe so that it may travel to the stomach. When food is not cleared through the body’s reflex response, it can cause severe pneumonia in the lungs.

Avoiding an uncomfortable sensation

Slowing down during mealtime may do you good, as careful chewing and slower eating can prevent food from traveling down the wrong pipe. Sometimes when you feel a sensation similar to choking but you are not coughing, food may be simply stuck in the esophagus. This is often the result of eating too fast. Take time to enjoy your food for better dining experiences.

If you want to learn new and strange facts about the human body, keep reading the MeMD Blog. Feel free to post any of your health questions in the comments below, and they may just be answered in future blogs!

Share Your Thoughts

  • Sarah Thomen

    So does this count as choking? I mean when this happens, someone doesn’t need to perform the Heimlich.

    • Kat

      The Heimlich maneuver is only used to help a choking person who is conscious and unable to talk/cough forcefully. If the person can speak, this means their airway is only partly blocked.

  • Sarah Thomen

    Uh your comment makes no sense!

  • xPositivelyCorrupted

    what if instead of coughing I have the urge to throw up and when I do, it’s just a huge ball of air and sounds like a burp

  • Eric

    Welp this sucks. Going through this right now. I hate when this happens.