Have you ever had something you eat or drink "go down the wrong pipe" and enter your airway or lungs? The medical term for that is "aspiration." It can also happen when something re-enters your throat from your stomach. Unlike choking, when you aspirate, the substance doesn't completely block your airway.
Anyone can get food go into their airway, but people who have trouble swallowing are more likely to have it happen. Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) affects more than 15 million Americans. The problem can be temporary or part of a more serious condition.
People who might aspirate often or have trouble swallowing include those who have had a stroke, the elderly, and people with developmental disabilities.
Sometimes there is no telltale sign food or liquid is going down the wrong way. Because you don't notice it, you don't cough. But in most cases, you:
- Feel food stuck in your throat
- Hurt when you swallow, or it's hard to do so
- Cough while or after you eat or drink
- Feel congested after you eat or drink
- Have a gurgling or "wet-sounding" voice when you eat
Other signs are:
Your chances of aspiration go up as you age, since your ability to chew and swallow weakens as you get older.
Other things that can cause you to aspirate are:
- Acid reflux
- Any drop in mental ability
- Loss of muscle tone or coordination that interferes with how well you chew or swallow
- Reaction to medication
- Throat cancer, head and neck injuries, stroke, and nervous system disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis
- Eating or drinking too fast
Aspiration can lead to more severe issues like infection and tissue damage. For example, aspiration pneumonia is a lung infection that causes inflammation and buildup of fluid. Symptoms may come on slowly, but if you don't get treatment, they can get worse and become life-threatening.
Signs of aspiration pneumonia include:
- Frequent cough with smelly mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Fever or chills and excessive sweat
- Chest pain when you cough or take a deep breath
- Confusion, anxiety, and fatigue
- Feeling of suffocation
What You Can Do
Try these tips to avoid aspiration when you swallow:
- Eat only when you're alert and relaxed.
- Eat smaller meals, and eat more often.
- Add moisture, like sauce, to dry food.
- Always swallow before you take another bite.
- Avoid foods that stick together.
- Don't talk while you eat or drink.