Harvard Health Letter

Choking alert: Strategies for safe swallowing

Therapy, exercises, and changes in eating habits will help keep you safe.

choking alert- safe swallowing
Image: nyul/ iStock

It used to be so easy to munch a handful of nuts: chew, swallow, enjoy. Now, you avoid them or make sure there's a glass of water nearby when you eat nuts or any other foods that seem to get stuck in your throat. "It's normal to have some age-related changes with swallowing or occasional difficulty swallowing. What's not normal is when food or liquids get into the lungs regularly," says Semra Koymen, a speech-language pathologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Causes and symptoms

The simple act of swallowing is really a complicated process involving many nerves and 50 pairs of muscles. They work together to help break down food, push it to the back of the throat, close the airway, and open the esophagus, sending food to the stomach. "If those muscles aren't moving as well, or if the reflex is mistimed, food or liquids can go down the airway. The food, or bacteria in the food, can cause pneumonia when it gets into your lungs," says Koymen.

Swallowing trouble—known as dysphagia—is often related to aging. Just like other muscles in the body, the muscles in the throat and mouth lose bulk and strength as you age. "Occasionally, you might need to swallow a few extra times because things get stuck. Chewing may be harder, which can mean you swallow bigger chunks of food that get stuck more easily. This is a gradual change that most people adapt to without realizing it," says Koymen.

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