Gag Reflex: What to Know About the Reflex and How to Stop Getting One

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Jul 11, 2020 08:25 PM

When something touches the roof of your mouth, the back of your tongue or throat, or the area around your tonsils, you might experience a contraction in your throat. It’s called the gag reflex, and the spontaneous action is helpful in preventing ourselves to choke or to swallow potentially harmful substances.

Even though it’s actually a natural response, it can be problematic if it’s overly sensitive. You may experience a sensitive gag reflex when visiting the dentist or doctor for a routine checkup or procedure, or even when trying to swallow a pill.

An overly sensitive gag reflex can be triggered by things such as anxiety, postnasal drip, or acid reflux. The good news is, you can try several methods to prevent your gag reflex from interfering with your overall health.

What is a gag reflex?

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The pharyngeal reflex, gag reflex, or laryngeal spasm, is a reflex contraction of the back of the throat triggered by touching the roof of the mouth, the back of the tongue, the area around the tonsils, the uvula, and the back of the throat.

This reflex prevents objects in the oral cavity from entering the throat and helps prevent choking which is in a form of coughing. This defense mechanism is controlled by your muscles and nerves and is known as a neuromuscular action.

Is gag reflex good?

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At some point, having a gag reflex is necessary since it prevents us from swallowing foreign objects. Gagging is considered normal in children under 4 but typically outgrow it as their oral functions mature. They begin to breathe through their nose and swallow instead of breathing and suctioning.

On the other hand, adults prone to gagging may have difficulty swallowing. This condition is known as dysphagia. You may also experience certain triggers that stimulate the reflex from time to time.

Causes and symptoms

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Perhaps you wonder why a person can be really sensitive in their back of the throat to the point they have difficulty swallowing pills. Some people also gag during a dental appointment. This may be because of physical touch or other sensory stimulation that occurs during the visit. There are also some other possible causes that affect your senses, such as touch, taste, sight, smell, sound.

When you’re gagging, you might experience some additional symptoms, such as producing excessive saliva, tearing eyes, sweating, fainting, or having a panic attack. Your overactive gag reflex can also be associated with a variety of conditions, including:

health issues such as acid reflux or multiple sclerosis

stress

anxiety

panic

intense physical activity

strong or disagreeable odors

sensitivity or allergic reaction to certain liquids or foods

No gag reflex

Is it possible to not have a gag reflex? The answer is yes. If you never experience such a neuromuscular action, it’s possible that the trigger areas in your mouth may be less sensitive to physical touch or other senses.

However, you might still gag in an extreme circumstance. It’s possible that you’ve never been exposed to a situation that prompts gagging.

How to get rid of gag reflex

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If you always experience an overactive gag reflex, you might want to better manage your gag reflex.  If you experience this when at the dentist or in another medical setting, talk to your dentist or doctor about different management options.

However, if it starts to interferes with your day-to-day life or your wellness, you might want to try psychological approaches instead. Sometimes your gag reflex occurs due to some sort of anxiety. This is where interventions that influence your behavior or mental state are needed. You can either try relaxation techniques, distraction, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, or desensitization.

You can also try acupuncture or acupressure to relieve your gag reflex. This practice is supposed to help your body rebalance itself and find equilibrium with the application of needles into certain points on your body.

There are also some topical and oral medications to help you get rid of a gag reflex. These include local anesthetics that you apply to sensitive areas that stimulate gagging or other medications that control your central nervous system and help manage nausea and vomiting. Your doctor might also recommend antihistamines or sedatives.

Another alternative involves a particular procedure done by your doctor by creating a prosthetic. For example, you may be able to get modified dentures.

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