The human gag reflex is a natural occurrence that allows our body to reject unwanted intrusions. It’s a survival instinct that’s been built in to us since the year dot.
If you swallow something too large, your body will try to reject it. Those are the pharyngeal muscles going to work to save your life so you don’t choke to death.
The gag reflex often happens at the dentist or when you experience someone vomiting near you. Strong odours or chemical smells can also trigger your gag reflex. Some people even react to the sound of someone being sick.
Excessive coughing can also trigger a gag reflex as the muscles at the back of your throat are agitated and react. A throat infection (like strep throat) can scar and change how you react to gagging. When you previously wouldn’t react and now you do. In time, this might correct itself or you may have to take steps to retrain your pharyngeal muscles to be more relaxed.
When is it a good thing to gag?
Sometimes you have to force a gag reflex by inserting a finger down either yours or someone else’s throat. This can happen when children swallow something they should not have.
Everyone is different and reacts uniquely to these influences. Some people are very sensitive and gag easily. Others, not so much.
The belief is that over time, you can ‘train’ your gag reflex and control it so you do not react to something being forced down your throat when it shouldn’t be there. The trick is to ‘distract’ your throat muscles so your focus is not on them. It’s doable but can fall into the easier said than done category.
Did you know:
- One-third of the population lacks a gag reflex!
- This can be a genetic condition or a medical issue
- Not everyone can train their gag reflex to stop
- The muscles used for swallowing food are different than those which control the gag reflex
- People without a gag reflex are more prone to throat ailments
- Smoking can adversely affect your ability to maintain a healthy throat and prevent stomach acids from venturing back up and into your mouth
- By numbing the soft palate (with a spray or gel) you can reduce the risk of gagging for about 20 minutes.
Life hacks for suppressing your gag reflex
- Squeeze your thumb (left)
- Make a fist
- Breath through your nose – slow deep breaths
- Apply pressure to your High Point (the space between your thumb and your index finger)
- Press the space between your lower lip and your chin
- When brushing your teeth, gradually brush farther and farther back on your tongue over time until you stop experiencing a gag reflex as often. Be very careful as not to go too far back and scratch or cut your throat.
Do you need medication for an overly sensitive gag reflex?
Maybe you do. It is up to your doctor to determine if any medications will help. Depending on the country you live in, some are over the counter drugs (OTC).
- Chloraseptic Throat Spray mucous
- Orasep mucous membrane
Prescribed medications include:
- Lidocaine Viscous
- Bucalsep mucous membrane
- Lidocaine HCl mucous membrane
Probably the most famous people who force the gag reflex upon themselves are bulimics. They will induce vomiting to evacuate food from their stomachs. This is a psychological condition which is sometimes lethal and should be treated by a professional.
Almost a third of the population have an over-sensitive gag reflex. This makes swallowing something as simple as a pill almost impossible. This is usually an issue when someone has had a negative experience swallowing and they ‘clamp up’ each time they have to do it.
In some cases, overly sensitive people are giving numbing agents to relax the palate to allow them to swallow or receive dental treatment without gagging and potentially complicating the procedure.
Dentists know a number of techniques to reduce a patients’ gag reflex:
- Spray a numbing agent onto the soft palate
- A relaxed patient is less likely to tense up and react – they may play music or have a TV running in the background or low lighting
- Find out if you had a previous traumatic dental experience and talk you through it
- Don’t eat before a major procedure… just in case
- For more extreme cases, they may put you under an anesthetic for the procedure.
You can do it!
If you are determined to suppress your gag reflex, it will take practice and patience.
Pushing yourself a little more each day, using the techniques mentioned here will help you have more control and reduce the risk of gagging when you do not want to.
And you can also use hypnosis to help reduce your gag reflex – check out this track.