When Something Goes “Down the Wrong Pipe”

by | Apr 4, 2022 | News

You’re curled up on the couch in the dark, watching your favorite scary movie and enjoying some popcorn. As the suspense starts building, you can’t help but take a handful of the snack into your mouth. You chew thoroughly, but as you begin to swallow, the dreaded jump scare. You gasp, and suddenly you can’t breathe. Some popcorn scraps go down the “wrong pipe,” sucked into your breathing tube, trachea. You experience a coughing fit and a bit of panic, then relief. The experience is often referred to as choking, but medically, it’s aspiration. 

How People Normally Swallow

Usually, eating and swallowing is a well-coordinated process, including four stages: pre-oral, oral, pharyngeal, and esophageal phases. When you smell or see food, your mouth begins to salivate. Saliva acts as lubrication to help break down food during mastication and guide the food through the throat to the stomach. As you chew, the food is mixed with saliva and transferred to the back of the mouth, triggering a reflexive response.  

As you swallow, the soft palate raises, sealing the nasal cavity. The larynx moves up and forward, closing vocal folds. The epiglottis covers the airway, stopping breathing momentarily. The pharynx pushes the food down into the esophageal cavity, which opens to allow food in before promptly closing to prevent retrograde movement. 

Finally, the muscle contractions in the esophagus transport the food to the stomach. The esophagus opens at the lower end allowing the food to pass into the stomach, and closes to prevent regurgitation. 

What Happens When You Aspirate

Aspiration results from foreign material, such as liquid or food, entering the trachea. While the typical swallowing process protects against secretions entering the trachea, sometimes accidents occur, often when you are distracted, like watching a movie. 

When the foreign material enters the trachea, your body goes into fight or flight mode and initializes a coughing fit to expel the material from the trachea. The material is often expelled back into the esophagus and transferred to the stomach or expelled through the mouth without issue. However, if aspirated into the lungs, a person might suffer pulmonary problems, such as pneumonia. 

Tips To Avoid Aspiration

To avoid aspirating, you need to focus on eating and limit external distractions like television and conversation. You can also practice mindful eating, paying close attention to the sight, smell, taste, and texture of the food you eat. Experience your meal rather than simply consuming it.  

Many people aspirate because they are distracted and not thoroughly chewing. Chewing is crucial to swallowing and digesting food. Thorough chewing results in a bolus that tends to slide down the esophagus with ease. 

Signs of More Serious Swallowing Disorders

Sometimes aspiration can hint at a more severe swallowing disorder, such as dysphagia. While dysphagia typically occurs in older adults, you should be aware of potential signs just in case, including: 

  • Pain when swallowing 
  • Excess saliva 
  • Fever within an hour of eating 
  • Trouble swallowing 
  • Frequent pneumonia 
  • Coughing while eating or drinking 
  • Heartburn or chest discomfort 
  • Feeling congested after a meal 

Aspirating does not always point to more severe conditions; it is a relatively common experience. However, consider speaking with your doctor or contacting HEAR Center for more information if you are concerned.

Contact HEAR Center

Contact us today to learn more about our services or to make an appointment:

Call or text: (626) 734-6555

Email us at: appointments@hearcenter.org 

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Also, for more information about our Audiological Evaluations (hearing test) please visit our webpage: https://www.hearcenter.org/services/audiology/