Food can end up in the wrong tube
Aspiration is the medical term for when food accidentally enters the windpipe instead of the esophagus.
Most people have probably heard or used the phrase “my food went down the wrong tube” at some point.
VERIFY viewer Casey recently texted our team asking if food can actually go down the wrong tube.
Can food go down the wrong tube?
Yes, food can go down the wrong tube.
WHAT WE FOUND
The medical term for food that goes down the wrong tube is aspiration, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, the Cleveland Clinic, ENT specialist Andrew Tkaczuk, and speech-language pathologist Rina Abrams. Aspiration occurs when food, drink, or other foreign objects are accidentally inhaled into the lungs but the airway is not completely blocked.
“Aspiration is more of a symptom than a diagnosis. It kind of falls globally into the realm of another symptom called dysphasia, or difficulty swallowing,” Tkaczuk told VERIFY.
Normally, if a person swallows while eating or drinking, the substance should travel down the esophagus and into the stomach. But sometimes it can accidentally pass through a person’s vocal cords and get stuck in their windpipe (trachea).
“We basically have two tubes in our throat, if you want to think about it that way, we have our airway, which is our windpipe, and then we have our esophagus, or esophagus,” Abrams said.
“The airways sit in front of the esophagus, and when we breathe and speak, our airways are wide open…. and the esophagus, the esophagus, is closed,” Abrams continued. “Then when we swallow, several different factors close our airways, and then the esophagus opens up to allow food to pass through the correct tube.”
But when a person is distracted while eating or drinking, both tubes are open, allowing food to slip into the wrong one. In general, a well-coordinated muscle interaction in a person’s lower throat, such as coughing or gagging, can trigger eating or drinking automatically.
“Most of the time, when a healthy person has an aspiration event, it’s typically a mistimed situation — you’re doing too much at once, you’re chatting with your friends, you’re drinking, and then, whoops, you know , things are going wrong, and you’re coughing and clearing it up,” Tkaczuk said.
But if coughing isn’t enough, don’t panic. Instead, the Cleveland Clinic says to stop what you’re doing and lie on your stomach with a pillow under your hips. This tilts your windpipe slightly downward, which can help expel the food or drink that went down the wrong tube. This is not the same as that Heimlich maneuvera first aid method for suffocation.
Aspiration is not the same as suffocation, which occurs when the airway is blocked by food, drink, or other foreign objects. Asphyxiation can result in unconsciousness and death within minutes. If a person is choking, you should call 9-1-1 immediately. The Heimlich maneuver should only be performed on people whose lives are at risk from asphyxiation. If someone can speak, cough, or breathe, the Heimlich maneuver is unnecessary.
Abrams and Tkaczuk both said if there’s an occasional aspiration, there’s nothing to worry about. However, if it happens frequently, you should see a doctor as you could have a swallowing disorder or vocal cord disorder that could cause serious health problems like pneumonia.
Here are a few tips that can help you avoid aspiration:
- Don’t talk with your mouth full. Talking keeps your airways open while you swallow when they should be closed and protected.
- Take your time eating. Divide your food into small portions and chew each bite thoroughly.
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