A gag reflex occurs in the back of your mouth and is triggered when your body wants to protect itself from swallowing something foreign. This is a natural response, but it can be problematic if it’s overly sensitive.
You may experience a sensitive gag reflex when visiting the dentist or doctor for a routine checkup or procedure, or even when trying to swallow a pill. There are several methods you can try to prevent your gag reflex from interfering with your overall health.
Gagging is the opposite of swallowing. When you gag, two different parts at the back of your mouth work to close off entry to your throat: Your pharynx contracts, and your larynx pushes up.
This is a defense mechanism to prevent something from being swallowed and ingested. This process is controlled by your muscles and nerves and is known as a neuromuscular action.
Gagging is considered normal in children under 4. They gag more frequently and typically outgrow it after their 4th birthday, as their oral functions mature. They begin to breathe through their nose and swallow instead of breathing and suctioning.
Adults prone to gagging may have difficulty swallowing. This condition is known as dysphagia. You may also experience certain triggers that stimulate the reflex from time to time.
There are two reasons you may gag:
- a physical stimulus, known as somatogenic
- a mental trigger, known as psychogenic
These two types of gagging aren’t always separate. You may find yourself gagging from physical touch, but also because of the sight, sound, smell, or thought of some object or situation that triggers the reflex.
There are five places near the back of your mouth that when triggered can cause gagging. These include the:
- base of your tongue
- back of your pharyngeal wall
When any of these spots in your mouth become stimulated by touch or other senses, the stimulation goes from your nerves to your medulla oblongata in your brain stem. This then signals the muscles in the back of your mouth to contract or push up and leads to gagging.
The nerves that send this signal are the trigeminal, glossopharyngeal, and vagus nerves.
In some instances, gagging may also activate your cerebral cortex. This could lead to gagging when even thinking about something that could stimulate this reflex.
Because a combination of factors can lead to gagging, you may find that you do it only in certain circumstances. You may gag at the dentist’s office during a routine cleaning because it triggers one or more of your senses.
At home, you may conduct the same types of oral cleaning routines without incident because not all of the triggers from the dental office are present.
The medulla oblongata resides near other centers that signal you to vomit, create saliva, or send signals to your heart. This means that some additional symptoms may occur when you gag, including:
- producing excessive saliva
- tearing eyes
- having a panic attack
Gagging is a normal reflex, and you may or may not experience it as an adult. You may find yourself gagging in certain situations, such as in the dentist’s office, or when trying to swallow something unnatural, like a pill.
You may also gag during a dental visit if:
- your nose is obstructed
- you have a gastrointestinal disorder
- you’re a heavy smoker
- you have dentures that don’t fit well
- your soft palate is shaped differently
Swallowing pills can be difficult, and 1 in 3 people find themselves gagging, choking, or vomiting when trying to swallow them.
Gagging can be measured on different levels. The grading levels of gagging escalate based on what triggers the reflex.
If you have a normal gagging reflex, you can control your gagging, but you may experience the sensation during certain situations, like an invasive or prolonged dental procedure.
Your gagging sensitivity would be graded higher if you gag during routine cleanings or even while a dentist is conducting a brief physical or visual exam.
Even though gagging is a normal neuromuscular action, it may be that you never experience a gag reflex. The trigger areas in your mouth may be less sensitive to physical touch or other senses.
It’s possible that you may gag in an extreme circumstance but have never been exposed to a situation that prompts gagging.
You may want control your sensitive gag reflex if it interferes with your day-to-day life or your wellness.
You may need to try several methods to determine what works to help you manage your gag reflex. If you experience this when at the dentist or in another medical setting, talk to your dentist or doctor about different management options.
There are several strategies you may want to try to prevent gagging:
It may be that you need to overcome your sensitive gag reflex with psychological treatments, or other interventions that influence your behavior or mental state. You may want to try:
- relaxation techniques
- cognitive behavioral therapy
Acupuncture or acupressure
You may want to try an alternative method for relieving your gag reflex. Acupuncture may be useful in this instance. This practice is supposed to help your body rebalance itself and find equilibrium with the application of needles into certain points on your body.
Acupressure is a similar technique and philosophy that doesn’t include needles.
Topical and oral medications
Some topical and oral medications may alleviate your gag reflex. These include local anesthetics that you apply to sensitive areas that stimulate gagging, or other medications that control your central nervous system and help manage nausea and vomiting.
Your doctor may also recommend antihistamines or sedatives, among other possible oral medications.
Nitrous oxide or anesthesia
You may find that you need nitrous oxide or local or general anesthesia administered to control your gag reflex during a dental or medical procedure that induces gagging.
Modified procedures or prosthetics
Your dentist or doctor may be able to modify how they complete a procedure, or create a prosthetic if you have a sensitive gag reflex. For example, you may be able to get modified dentures.
Particular swallowing methods
Swallowing pills may trigger a gag reflex. You can try particular methods to prevent this reflex. Try washing down a pill by drinking from a small-necked plastic water bottle or swallowing a pill with water when your chin is pointed downward.
It may be necessary for you to overcome a sensitive gag reflex to keep up your overall well-being and health. You may avoid visiting the dentist or taking prescribed medications if you have a sensitive gag reflex, and that could have serious repercussions.
Similarly, you may avoid seeing the doctor if you have strep throat or another illness because you worry about a test or procedure that’ll require a throat swab.
Don’t let your gag reflex get in the way of oral health at home, either. Talk with your dentist or doctor if you have difficulty controlling your gag reflex when brushing your teeth or cleaning your tongue.
They may be able to teach you modified techniques for these oral practices, or recommend certain products like toothpastes that help with this sensitivity.
Gagging occasionally is a normal reaction of your body and nothing to worry about. You may need to seek help to control your gagging if it interferes with your well-being or medical needs.
There are many ways to control your gag reflex, and trying various methods may help you overcome a sensitive gag reflex.