A Moment of Science

Down The Wrong Tube

Have you ever wondered what's really going on when you choke on what you're eating or drinking?

A drinking fountain in a park

Photo: Indigo Skies Photography

Even a very small amount of water can trigger a violent coughing fit.

How many times has this happened to you? You’re eating lunch with a friend, talking about this and that, when upon swallowing a bit of bread a sudden coughing fit erupts, turning your face bright red. “Sorry,” you gasp between coughs, “something went down the wrong tube.”

Why Does This Happen?

A few things happen as you swallow. The back section of the roof of your mouth — also called the “soft pallet” — closes off your nasal passages so that food doesn’t go up into the nose.

As the throat squeezes food toward the esophagus, the larynx tips forward to allow the food to pass through while at the same time sealing off the airway to prevent food from going down your windpipe.

Uncomfortable But Necessary

Eating while talking or laughing can sometimes cause the larynx to be a bit tardy in sealing off the air tube, allowing a bit of food or drink to head toward the lungs.

This normally triggers a strong coughing reflex to clear the airway. Although uncomfortable, this strenuous coughing is entirely necessary; food or liquid collecting in the lungs can cause a serious infection.

Read More:

  • What Happens When Your Food Goes Down The ‘Wrong Pipe’ (Huffington Post)

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