You may be able to overcome a sensitive gag reflex with gradual practice. In the meantime, using certain techniques may help you swallow pills or undergo dental work.

The gag reflex, also called the pharyngeal reflex, is a contraction of the throat that happens when something touches the roof of your mouth, the back of your tongue or throat, or the area around your tonsils.

This reflexive action helps to prevent choking and keeps us from swallowing potentially harmful substances.

Some people have an overly sensitive gag reflex that can be triggered by things such as anxiety, postnasal drip, or acid reflux. Swallowing pills, oral sex, or a trip to the dentist’s office can also be troublesome for those with an overactive gag reflex.

Keep reading to learn more about your gag reflex and what causes it. We’ll also explore ways to stop or desensitize your gag reflex.

Your gag reflex triggers your back throat (oropharynx) muscles to resist swallowing. This helps prevent you from choking and swallowing things that could be potentially harmful.

Along with violent muscle spasms in your throat, gagging is often accompanied by abdominal muscle spasms and a feeling of nausea.

According to a 2014 review, gagging reactions can range from mild choking to violent retching and vomiting.

Gagging is often identified with the area near the oropharynx being touched or physically irritated.

However, according to a 2015 study, your gag reflex can be a reaction to a number of different stimuli affecting your senses, including:

  • touch
  • taste
  • sight
  • smell
  • sound

An overactive gag reflex can also be associated with a variety of conditions, including:

There are a number of situations in which gagging might be likely for you, including swallowing pills and having dental treatments.

Pill swallowing

According to Harvard University, about 33 percent of people gag, choke, or vomit when attempting to swallow pills.

A 2014 study from Germany’s University of Heidelberg indicated success with two methods that can help people swallow pills.

1. The pop bottle method

  1. Put the pill on your tongue.
  2. Close your lips tightly around the opening of a bottle of water.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Drink by sucking the water from the bottle with your lips held tightly around the opening. Do not allow in any air.
  5. The pill will travel down your throat with the water.

This technique improved pill swallowing in 60 percent of the people in the study.

2. The lean forward method

  1. Put the pill on your tongue.
  2. Sip, but do not swallow, some water.
  3. Tilt your head forward, chin toward chest.
  4. Swallow the water and pill while your head is forward.

The lean forward method improved swallowing for more than 89 percent of the people in the study.

You can learn more about other pill-swallowing methods in this article.

Dental treatments

About 50 percent of dental patients say that they gag at least once when visiting the dentist, according to a 2014 study. There are a number of ways that dentists help their patients stop their gag reflex so the treatment can proceed smoothly.

  • Medication. According to a 2016 study of people gagging when having an impression made of their teeth, local anesthetic was successfully used to control the gag reflex. A 2015 study suggested that tranquilizers can reduce anxiety and tension, which can lower the incidence of gagging.
  • Psychology. In the same 2015 study, the technique of distracting the patient (primarily through conversation or physical positioning) was also indicated as an effective way to avoid gagging for some patients.

Acupuncture is a complementary medical procedure that uses thin needles to penetrate the skin at certain strategic points on the body.

A 2015 study suggested that acupuncture on two specific points can be effective for controlling the gag reflex for a short period of time. Point one is on the front of the wrist, an inch or two below the palm. Point two is on the chin, just below the lip.

A 2014 study review in Nitte University Journal of Health Science suggested that the most effective anti-gagging acupuncture locations are a specific, recognized anti-gagging point on each ear.

Acupuncture treatments should only be performed by a licensed acupuncturist.

Acupressure is a traditional Chinese therapy of applying pressure to specific points on the body to stimulate the body to address issues such as stress, illness, or pain.

Many think of acupressure as acupuncture without the needles. A 2008 study indicated that applying pressure to a specific point on the palm consistently altered the gag reflex.

One way of applying this pressure is described as closing your left hand over your left thumb to make a fist. By squeezing your hand — not tight enough to cause pain — you put pressure on your thumb, which puts pressure on the targeted point.

You can reduce or eliminate your gag reflex by gradually getting your soft palate accustomed to being touched. One technique is to use a toothbrush on your tongue:

  1. Using a soft toothbrush to brush your tongue until you reach the area that makes you feel like you might gag. If you gag, you have brushed too far.
  2. For about 15 seconds, brush that area.
  3. Repeat the process once a day until you no longer feel the urge to gag begin. That area has been desensitized.
  4. Then move the brush slightly further back ¼ to ½ inch and repeat the process, moving the brush further and further back until you come to your tongue’s farthest visual point.

Desensitization, which usually takes about a month, is a longer-term solution that’s helpful for people with gagging issues. It can help you become accustomed to gagging triggers such as new dentures that extend into the palate, medical throat swabbing, dentistry, or oral sex.

Gagging can make many situations uncomfortable, from swallowing pills to visiting the dentist. Short-term ways to reduce your gag reflex include local anesthetic and acupuncture. A longer-term solution is desensitization.

Keep in mind that your gag reflex is one of your body’s ways of protecting itself, so consider talking with your doctor about your desire to reduce or eliminate it. They can recommend treatments based on your current health and any medications you may be taking.