Swallowing is a complex process. When you eat, around 50 pairs of muscles and many nerves work together to move food from your mouth to your stomach. It’s not uncommon for something to go wrong during this process, making it feel like you have food stuck in your throat.
When you take a bite of solid food, a three-step process begins:
- You prepare the food to be swallowed by chewing it. This process allows the food to mix with saliva, and transforms it into a moistened puree.
- Your swallowing reflex is triggered as your tongue pushes the food to the back of your throat. During this phase, your windpipe closes tightly and your breathing stops. This prevents food from going down the wrong pipe.
- The food enters your esophagus and travels down into your stomach.
When it feels like something didn’t go all the way down, it’s usually because it’s stuck in your esophagus. Your breathing isn’t affected when this happens because the food has already cleared your windpipe. However, you may cough or gag.
Symptoms of food stuck in your esophagus develop immediately after it happens. It’s not uncommon to have severe chest pain. You may also experience excessive drooling. But there are often ways to resolve the issue at home.
Thousands of people die from choking every year. It’s particularly common among young children and adults over the age of 74. Choking happens when food or a foreign object gets stuck in your throat or windpipe, blocking the flow of air.
When someone is choking, they:
- are unable to talk
- have difficulty breathing or noisy breathing
- make squeaky sounds when trying to breathe
- cough, forcefully or weakly
- become flushed, then turn pale or bluish
- lose consciousness
Choking is a life-threatening emergency. If you or a loved one experiences these symptoms, call your local emergency services and perform rescue techniques such as the Heimlich maneuver or chest compressions immediately.
The following techniques may assist you in removing food that’s become lodged in your esophagus.
The ‘Coca-Cola’ trick
Research suggests that drinking a can of Coke, or another carbonated beverage, can help dislodge food stuck in the esophagus. Doctors and emergency workers often utilize this simple technique to break up food.
Although they don’t know exactly how it works, doctors believe that the carbon dioxide gas in soda helps disintegrate the food. It’s also thought that some of the soda gets into the stomach, which then releases gas. The pressure of the gas can dislodge the stuck food.
Try a few cans of diet soda or seltzer water at home immediately after noticing the stuck food.
Over-the-counter medications designed to treat gas pain may help dislodge food stuck in the esophagus. In the same way as carbonated sodas, medications containing simethicone (Gas-X) make it easier for your stomach to produce gas. This gas increases the pressure in your esophagus and can push the food loose.
Follow the standard dosing recommendation on the package.
A few big sips of water may help you wash down the food stuck in your esophagus. Normally, your saliva provides enough lubrication to help food slide easily down the esophagus. If your food wasn’t chewed properly, it may be too dry. Repeated sips of water may moisten the stuck food, making it go down more easily.
A moist piece of food
It may feel uncomfortable to swallow something else, but sometimes one food can help push another down. Try dipping a piece of bread in some water or milk to soften it, and take a few small bites.
Another effective option may be to take a bite of banana, a naturally soft food.
Alka-Seltzer or baking soda
An effervescent drug like Alka-Seltzer may help break down food that’s stuck in the throat. Effervescent drugs dissolve when mixed with a liquid. Similar to soda, the bubbles they produce when dissolving may help disintegrate the food and produce pressure that can dislodge it.
If you don’t have Alka-Seltzer, you can try mixing some baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, with water. This may help dislodge food in the same way.
Sometimes the esophagus needs an extra bit of lubrication. As unpleasant as it may sound, it may help to eat a tablespoon of butter. This can sometimes help moisten the lining of the esophagus and make it easier for the stuck food to move down into your stomach.
Wait it out
Food that gets stuck in the throat usually passes on its own, given some time. Give your body a chance to do its thing.
If you’re unable to swallow your saliva and are experiencing distress, go to your local emergency room as soon as possible. If you’re not in distress but the food is still stuck, you can have an endoscopic procedure to remove the food within 24 hours. After that, there’s risk of damage to the lining of your esophagus. Some doctors recommend coming in after 6 to 12 hours to reduce the likelihood of damage and make the extraction easier.
During an endoscopic procedure, your doctor can identify any possible underlying causes. If you frequently get food stuck in your throat, you should consult a doctor. One of the most common problems is a narrowing of the esophagus caused by the buildup of scar tissue, or esophageal stricture. A specialist can treat esophageal stricture by placing a stent or performing a dilation procedure.
Getting food stuck in your throat can be frustrating and painful. If this occurs frequently, talk to your doctor about possible underlying causes. Otherwise, you may be able to avoid a trip to the emergency room by treating yourself at home with carbonated beverages or other remedies.
In the future, be particularly careful when eating meat, as it’s the most common culprit. Avoid eating too quickly, take small bites, and avoid eating while intoxicated.