Most folks aren’t very well-versed on human anatomy, which is why many of us call biceps “guns”, elbows “funny bones”, and heads “noggins”. So, when throat irritation & coughing spring up after you swallow something in a weird way, you might say that the food “went down the wrong pipe.” But what’s actually going on when that happens?
More than 30 muscles operate when you chew & then swallow. When the food’s ready to leave your mouth & head down into your stomach, it’s near the top ends of two “pipes,” the esophagus & the trachea. You want that food to travel via the esophageal route, since that leads to the stomach. Your body knows that, which is why, during ingestion, the voice box & epiglottis shift & close off the trachea, which, for food, is definitely the “wrong pipe”.
We don’t typically hold our breath when we eat, so food can end up taking a wrong turn down into the trachea every now & then. That “aspiration”, as it’s medically known, triggers an adrenaline response & causes you to cough uncomfortably. Dislodging the food will usually ease the problem, but sometimes it can get stuck & obstruct your airway, at which point you’re officially considered to be choking.
You might notice, though, that this happens more often with liquids. That’s because liquids move more quickly than solids, giving the body less time to react.
In rare cases, food or liquids that head down the “wrong pipe” can end up in the lungs & cause pneumonia. Thankfully, that’s uncommon, as coughing tends to get the food moving back into the esophagus where it’s supposed to be.
To minimize your chances of getting food stuck, try to avoid talking with your mouth full. Also, thoroughly chew reasonable portions. Y’know…all the things your mom & dad used to tell you.
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