Food stuck in throat: What to do and spotting an emergency (2023)

Having food stuck in the throat can be uncomfortable and scary. However, being able to recognize the signs of choking and knowing what to do in an emergency can help save a person’s life.

The process of swallowing food involves a number of involuntary muscle movements. Most of the time, these muscle movements prevent food from becoming stuck in the throat.

First, the tongue pushes food to the back of the throat. This is where the openings of the esophagus (food pipe) and windpipe are located. As a person swallows, a flap of cartilage called the epiglottis closes off the windpipe. This temporarily stops breathing and prevents food from entering the airways.

At the same time, a muscle called the upper esophageal sphincter relaxes, allowing food to move into the esophagus.

Sometimes, however, food get can stuck in the esophagus, creating an uncomfortable sensation in the throat or chest. At other times, the epiglottis does not close sufficiently during swallowing, which allows food to enter the airways. This can result in choking.

Both types of blockage can cause pain and discomfort. However, a blockage in the windpipe can be a medical emergency. Keep reading to learn what to do if food becomes stuck in the throat.

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When food enters the windpipe, it can partially or completely block the airways.

Sometimes, persistent or forceful coughing can dislodge the food. At other times, a blockage that occurs in the windpipe or voice box can result in choking.

Choking refers to breathing difficulties resulting from acute obstruction of the airways. A person who is choking is unable to inhale or exhale enough air to cough.

(Video) What to do when there is a feeling of something stuck in the throat? - Dr.Harihara Murthy

The following symptoms may indicate that a person is choking:

  • silent coughing or gagging
  • wheezing
  • clutching the throat
  • an inability to speak or breathe
  • a blue tint to the skin, called cyanosis

A person who cannot speak, cough, or breathe may require the Heimlich maneuver. This procedure, also known as abdominal thrusts, involves forcefully applying pressure to the abdomen to dislodge a blockage in the windpipe.

The Heimlich maneuver is only required in emergency situations. A person should only perform the Heimlich maneuver on someone who is choking.

The procedure is not suitable for children under 1 year of age or women in the late stages of pregnancy. These people may require different variations of the maneuver.

The American College of Emergency Physicians provide some instructions for performing the Heimlich maneuver. Before performing it on someone who is conscious, a person should confirm that the other person is choking by asking, “Are you choking?”

Only proceed with the maneuver if the person nods yes and cannot seem to speak, cough, or breathe for themselves.

To perform the Heimlich maneuver:

  • Step 1: Stand behind the person and reach both arms around their waist.
  • Step 2: Clench one fist and position it so that it is above the person’s navel and below their ribcage.
  • Step 3: Clasp the clenched fist with the other hand.
  • Step 4: Quickly thrust the clenched fist backward and upward under their ribcage. Do this 6–10 times in quick succession.
  • Step 5: Continue to perform abdominal thrusts until the obstruction dislodges from the airways or until the emergency services arrive.
  • Step 6: Ensure that the person receives medical attention as soon as possible, even if they have stopped choking.

If the person stops breathing and becomes unresponsive, they should receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

A person who is alone while choking may need to perform the Heimlich maneuver on themselves. If a chair is available, they can lean over the back of the chair while performing the maneuver. This should help dislodge blockages from the airways.

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Unless a person is choking, food stuck in the throat is not always a major medical emergency. If the person is not choking, coughing hard may help dislodge food from the throat.

Sometimes, the obstruction occurs in the esophagus. This is called a food bolus impaction (FBI). Although uncomfortable, medical professionals do not consider an esophageal FBI to be as significant a medical emergency as choking.

People who have food stuck in the esophagus can try the following tips to help dislodge it:

  • Swallowing fluids or soft foods: This can help lubricate the food or push it downward.
  • Taking effervescent tablets: These over-the-counter tablets cause carbon dioxide gas to form, which helps relieve food blockages by pushing them downward.
  • Drinking carbonated drinks: These may work in a similar way to effervescent tablets.
  • Taking simethicone: This drug helps bring gas bubbles together in a larger density. This causes pressure in the esophagus that may help release food blockages.
(Video) What happens when you swallow something down the 'wrong pipe'

In 2015, more than 5,000 people died from choking.

Choking can affect people of any age. However, it is more common in children ages 0–3 years and in adults over the age of 60.

Choking is the fourth leading cause of accidental death.

Choking in children

Choking is the leading cause of infant death and the fourth leading cause of death among preschool children.

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Children most commonly choke on food, coins, balloons, and small toys.

Choking in older adults

Older people produce less saliva, which makes it difficult for them to move food to the back of their mouth when swallowing.

Certain conditions that are more common in older age can also increase the risk of choking. Examples include dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Dysphagia and choking

Some people experience dysphagia, which is the medical term for swallowing difficulties. Dysphagia can increase a person’s risk of choking.

Certain muscle disorders and nervous system disorders that affect the nerves involved in swallowing can cause dysphagia. Examples of conditions that can cause dysphagia include:

  • stroke
  • head injury
  • cerebral palsy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • dementia
  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

Dysphagia can also develop after sustaining an injury to the esophagus.

A person should make an appointment with their doctor if they frequently experience one or more of the following:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • food stuck in the windpipe
  • food blockages in the esophagus

Doctors who treat swallowing disorders use diagnostic tests to examine the different stages of the swallowing process. These tests may include:

  • Flexible endoscopic evaluation of swallowing with sensory testing: This technique uses an endoscope to view the swallowing mechanisms inside the mouth and throat. Doctors examine how the mechanisms respond to different stimuli, such as food, liquids, and puffs of air.
  • Video fluoroscopic swallow study: This uses real time X-rays of a person as they are swallowing. This helps doctors identify issues at different stages of the swallowing process.

Based on the results of these diagnostic tests, a doctor may recommend certain strategies to improve safety when swallowing. Some examples include:

  • making changes to the size and texture of food
  • making changes to head and neck position when eating
  • trying behavioral maneuvers when swallowing, such as tucking in the chin
  • trying medical or surgical interventions

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The following tips can help prevent food obstructions from developing in the esophagus and windpipe:

  • eating smaller mouthfuls of food
  • chewing food slowly and thoroughly before swallowing
  • not drinking too much alcohol before or during meals
  • not eating food “on the go”

Unlike adults, who mainly choke on food, children can also choke on toys or small objects. The following tips can help prevent choking in children:

  • keeping small objects out of reach of children
  • supervising young children when they are eating or playing
  • making sure that children sit upright to eat
  • chopping food into small pieces before giving it to children
  • encouraging children to chew food slowly and thoroughly

Also, people should avoid giving the following foods to children below 3–4 years of age:

  • small, hard foods, such as nuts, dried fruits, and hard candies
  • slippery foods, such as grapes, hotdogs, and large pieces of meat
  • sticky foods, such as taffy, gummy candies, and marshmallows
  • nut butters from a spoon or finger
(Video) What causes feeling of lump in throat or something stuck in throat? - Dr. Satish Babu K

Food obstructions can sometimes develop in the esophagus or windpipe. Food blockages in the esophagus are generally not a major medical emergency.

However, food blockages in the windpipe can lead to choking. People who are choking require emergency treatment.

The Heimlich maneuver, also known as abdominal thrusts, is a first aid method that people can use to remove blockages from a person’s windpipe. However, it is not suitable for use on children under 1 and heavily pregnant women.

People who frequently have trouble swallowing should see their doctor. They may be able to diagnose the cause of the swallowing difficulties. They may also offer tips and techniques to improve safety when swallowing.

(Video) First Aid in Choking


Should I go to ER for food stuck in throat? ›

If an obstruction interferes with breathing, call for emergency help immediately. If you're unable to swallow because you feel that food is stuck in your throat or chest, go to the nearest emergency department.

When should you see a doctor for something stuck in your throat? ›

Globus sensation usually disappears on its own over time, but you should seek medical advice if the condition is accompanied by any of the following symptoms: Pain in the throat or neck. Weight loss. Vomiting.

How do doctors treat food stuck in esophagus? ›

An endoscopy may be done if the food does not pass. A scope will be passed through the mouth and down the throat. Small tools will be passed down the tube to remove the food or push it down to the stomach. The doctor will look for possible reasons the food was blocked.

Should I go to the hospital if I feel something in my throat? ›

It's a good idea to see your healthcare provider if the feeling of the lump in your throat is persistent or happens with other symptoms, including: Unexplained weight loss. Pain with swallowing. Difficulty swallowing.

When should you go to the ER for esophagus? ›

If the pain is not relieved shortly after taking antacids, or is accompanied by these symptoms, seek emergency medical care: Squeezing/tightening in the chest. Feeling out of breath. Pain, aching or discomfort radiating from the chest to the arms, back or neck.

How do you push food down your esophagus? ›

A few big sips of water may help you wash down the food stuck in your esophagus. Normally, your saliva provides enough lubrication to help food slide easily down the esophagus. If your food wasn't chewed properly, it may be too dry. Repeated sips of water may moisten the stuck food, making it go down more easily.

Can you live with something stuck in your throat? ›

When dysphagia from food obstruction happens, people can still breathe, but it's typically painful, uncomfortable and can be potentially very dangerous.

How do I know if my food is stuck in my windpipe? ›

Signs of a partially blocked windpipe are present. When the windpipe is partially blocked, some air can still move in and out of the lungs. The person may gag, cough, or have trouble breathing. Coughing will often pop out the food or object and relieve the symptoms.

Why can't I get something out of my throat? ›

“The most common reason people feel like they have food stuck in their throat is dysphagia due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD),” says Loreli Garnica, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician. “GERD is also known as heartburn or reflux.”

Is food impaction an emergency? ›

Esophageal foreign body impaction (EFBI) is a gastroenterological emergency with an estimated annual incidence in the US of 11 per 100,000 person years1, and resulting in up to 1,500 deaths per year.

Can food stay stuck in windpipe? ›

When food enters the windpipe, it can partially or completely block the airways. Sometimes, persistent or forceful coughing can dislodge the food. At other times, a blockage that occurs in the windpipe or voice box can result in choking.

How do you clear an esophageal blockage? ›

If it is an acute blockage, such as food or a foreign object, emergency treatment using an endoscope or surgery will be required to remove the blockage. Usually a scan called a contrast scan show a narrowed area of the foodpipe.

How do you know if your throat is serious? ›

A sore throat that is severe or lasts longer than a week. Difficulty swallowing. Difficulty breathing. Difficulty opening your mouth.
When to see a doctor
  1. Difficulty breathing.
  2. Difficulty swallowing.
  3. Unusual drooling, which might indicate an inability to swallow.
Jun 10, 2021

Should I go to the hospital for globus? ›

Patients with typical globus symptoms usually require no further investigation beyond an outpatient nasolaryngoscopy[5]. However, patients with “alarm signs”, such as dysphagia, odynophagia, throat pain, weight loss, hoarseness, and lateralization of pathology, should undergo more extensive evaluation[1].

What are the chances of surviving esophageal? ›

The overall five-year survival rate for esophageal cancer is about 20%, but survival rates can range from 5% to 47%. When esophageal cancer is found early and when it is small, the five-year survival rate is higher.

Is esophageal dysphagia fatal? ›

If untreated, dysphagia can cause patients to aspirate food and liquid into the lungs, leading to infections, aspiration pneumonia, and death.

Would you know if you ruptured your esophagus? ›

Symptoms of rupture of the esophagus include chest pain, abdominal pain, vomiting, vomiting blood, low blood pressure, and fever.

How long does food stay in your esophagus? ›

Once food has entered the esophagus, it doesn't just drop right into your stomach. Instead, muscles in the walls of the esophagus move in a wavy way to slowly squeeze the food through the esophagus. This takes about 2 or 3 seconds.

How do you dislodge food stuck in windpipe? ›

Ways to remove food stuck in throat
  1. The 'Coca-Cola' trick. Research suggests that drinking a can of Coke, or another carbonated beverage, can help dislodge food stuck in the esophagus. ...
  2. Simethicone. ...
  3. Water. ...
  4. A moist piece of food. ...
  5. Alka-Seltzer or baking soda. ...
  6. Butter. ...
  7. Wait it out.

Is aspiration an emergency? ›

Aspiration is a life-threatening medical emergency. Mortality heavily depends on the volume of aspirate and the presence of contaminants, but can be as high as 70 percent.

Why do I have a pocket in my throat trapping food? ›

Zenker's diverticulum develops when the muscle between the throat and esophagus, known as the cricopharyngeus muscle, over-tightens, causing the throat above it to pouch out. Overtime, the pouch can enlarge as the muscles below it tighten excessively. Food can catch in this pouch or it can cause an obstruction.

What are the 4 stages of dysphagia? ›

There are 4 phases of swallowing:
  • The Pre-oral Phase. – Starts with the anticipation of food being introduced into the mouth – Salivation is triggered by the sight and smell of food (as well as hunger)
  • The Oral Phase. ...
  • The Pharyngeal Phase. ...
  • The Oesophageal Phase.

Is esophageal blockage an emergency? ›

Esophageal obstruction typically improves spontaneously but may require emergency medicine care. Pediatric patients are the most common patient population affected.

Should I go to the ER for intestinal blockage? ›

Get medical help right away if you have symptoms of intestinal obstruction. These include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and inability to pass stool.

What happens if food bolus gets stuck in esophagus? ›

Impaction of a soft food bolus in the oesophagus causes dysphagia and regurgitation. If the bolus does not pass spontaneously, then the patient is at risk of aspiration, dehydration, perforation, and death. Definitive management is with endoscopic intervention, recommended within 24 hours.

What is the best way to get rid of blockage in the windpipe? ›

Treatment depends on the cause of the blockage.
  1. Objects stuck in the airway may be removed with special instruments.
  2. A tube may be inserted into the airway (endotracheal tube) to help with breathing.
  3. Sometimes an opening is made through the neck into the airway (tracheostomy or cricothyrotomy).
Jul 5, 2021

What does an esophageal blockage feel like? ›

The main symptom of an esophageal stricture is dysphagia, meaning difficulty in swallowing. This may manifest as a sensation of food sticking or feeling of delay in food passage in the throat, chest or upper abdomen.

What does a blockage in the esophagus feel like? ›

Feeling Like there is Food Stuck in Your Throat. Coughing or Choking When Swallowing. Unexplained Weight Loss. Vomiting or Regurgitating.

How can you tell if your throat is about to collapse? ›

  1. Difficulty breathing.
  2. High-pitched or rattling, noisy breaths.
  3. Noisy breathing, that may change when body position shifts and may improve during sleep.
  4. Severe coughing fits that may interrupt daily activities.
  5. Episodes of feeling as though you are choking.
  6. Wheezing.
  7. Lightheadedness due to coughing fits.

Would you know if your throat was closing? ›

Tightness in the throat can make you feel as if your airway passage is narrowed, causing symptoms such as difficulty swallowing or breathing. You may feel as if there's a lump in your throat or that it's swollen or closed off. These symptoms may be different from those you feel with a sore throat or common cold.

Is throat pain an emergency? ›

In rare cases, a sore throat can be considered an emergency. If you or someone in your care experiences difficulty breathing, drooling, and significant difficulty swallowing, visit a hospital ER immediately. Otherwise, your sore throat can be treated at any FastMed.

Should I go to the hospital after choking on food? ›

After removing the object that caused the choking, keep the person still and get medical help. Anyone who is choking should have a medical examination. Complications can occur not only from the choking, but also from the first aid measures that were taken.

Should you go to the hospital for dysphagia? ›

You usually do not need to go to the hospital, as long as you are able to eat enough and have a low risk of complications. However, if your esophagus is severely blocked, you may be hospitalized. Infants and children with dysphagia are often hospitalized.

Is impaction life threatening? ›

If left untreated, fecal impaction can cause ulcers, colitis or obstruction to your colon, which can be fatal.

What is the main symptom of a choking emergency? ›

Look for: difficulty breathing, speaking or coughing. a red puffy face. signs of distress, and they may point to their throat or grasp their neck.

How do you know if a choking is serious? ›

Severe choking: back blows and abdominal thrusts

Where choking is severe, the person won't be able to speak, cry, cough or breathe. Without help, they'll eventually become unconscious. To carry out a back blow on an adult: Stand behind them and slightly to one side.

What happens if you choke on food and can't breathe? ›

But, when the object is lodged further down the trachea it blocks airflow to the lungs. If someone is truly choking, they won't be able to breathe or talk and their face might turn red. If the brain goes too long without oxygen, damage or even death can occur. Immediate action must be taken.


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