Most people have probably heard or used the phrase “my food went down the wrong pipe.”
VERIFY viewer Casey recently sent a text to our team asking if food can actually go down the wrong pipe.
Can food go down the wrong pipe?
- American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
- Cleveland Clinic
- Andrew Tkaczuk, M.D., otolaryngologist and assistant professor at Emory University
- Rina Abrams, speech-language pathologist and dysphagia specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine
Yes, food can go down the wrong pipe.
WHAT WE FOUND
The medical term for food going down the wrong pipe is called aspiration, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, the Cleveland Clinic, otolaryngologist Andrew Tkaczuk and speech-language pathologist Rina Abrams. Aspiration happens when food, drink or another foreign object is breathed into the lungs by accident but the airway is not completely blocked.
“Aspiration is more of a symptom than actually a diagnosis. It kind of globally falls under the realm of another symptom called dysphasia, or trouble swallowing,” Tkaczuk told VERIFY.
Usually, when 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 pipes in our throat, if you want to think about it like that, we have our airway, which is our trachea, and then we have our esophagus or food tube,” Abrams said.
“The airway sits in front of the esophagus, and so, when we're breathing and speaking, our airway is wide open…. and the esophagus, the food tube, is closed,” Abrams continued. “Then when we swallow, our airway gets closed off by multiple different factors, and then the esophagus opens up so that food can go down the right pipe.”
But if a person is distracted while they are eating or drinking, both tubes are open, which can allow food to slip into the wrong one. Generally, a well-coordinated muscle interaction in a person’s lower throat, such as coughing or gagging, can knock the food or drink loose automatically.
“In most circumstances, when a healthy individual has an aspiration event, typically it's a missed timing situation — you're doing too much at once, you know, you're having a conversation with your friends, drinking, and then oops, you know, things go down the wrong way, and you cough and clear it out,” Tkaczuk said.
But if coughing doesn’t do the trick, don’t panic. Instead, the Cleveland Clinic says you should stop what you’re doing and lie on your belly with a cushion under your hips. This will tilt your windpipe slightly downward, which can help expel the food or drink that went down the wrong pipe. This is not the same as the Heimlich maneuver, a first aid method for choking.
Aspiration is not the same as choking, which occurs when the airway is blocked by food, drink or another foreign object. Choking can cause 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 life is endangered because of choking. If someone can speak, cough or breathe, the Heimlich maneuver is unnecessary.
Abrams and Tkaczuk both said if aspiration happens occasionally, there’s not much to worry about. However, if it happens frequently you should see a doctor because you could have a swallowing disorder or vocal cord disorder, which could cause serious health issues, such as 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 when you eat. Divide your food into small portions, and chew each bite thoroughly.