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What Causes Choking On Saliva And How To Prevent It?

Topic Overview

The salivary glands present in the mouth secrete a clear liquid which we know as saliva. The function of the saliva is to aid in digestion. It also helps in eliminating any bacteria that may be present in the food before it infiltrates into the stomach and cause problems. The body produces anywhere between 1-2 liters of saliva every day. This saliva gets easily swallowed by the body. In some instances, the salivary glands start producing excessive saliva. This is called as hypersalivation. When this happens, sometimes the person can start choking on the saliva. This is something which can happen to anyone and is not something to be overly concerned about. However, if this starts to occur frequently then it may also indicate an underlying medical condition which needs to be diagnosed and treated.[1, 2]

Choking on saliva can be quite scary but usually people cough out the excess saliva and get rid of the choking. There is also a situation where saliva accumulates in the throat. It can also result in choking and even cause problems with normal breathing. There are also certain neurological conditions which affect an individual’s ability to swallow thus resulting in choking on saliva. The article below gives details on the causes and ways to prevent Choking on Saliva[1, 2].

What Causes Choking On Saliva?

What Causes Choking On Saliva?

To understand what causes choking on saliva, it is important to understand what really happens when we swallow food or saliva for that matter. The saliva or food has to go down the esophagus to reach the stomach and start the process of digestion. Just adjacent to the esophagus is the windpipe through which air passes to the lungs. These two structures are separated by the epiglottis which closes the windpipe when we swallow food. However sometimes, the epiglottis does not close down fully resulting in some food or saliva entering the windpipe causing choking sensation[1, 2].

In a healthy individual, it is easy to bring the saliva back up to the mouth. However for the elderly or people with medical conditions, especially neurological disorders affecting swallowing, it becomes difficult to get rid of the choking sensation. In majority of the cases, choking on saliva occurs in people who talk while eating or swallowing. This happens as air is needed to talk when this is done while eating the epiglottis does not close completely causing saliva or food to get into the windpipe resulting in choking sensation. Some of the medical conditions that cause Choking on Saliva include:[1, 2]

Dysphagia: Swallowing of a person tends to get affected due to a variety of reasons including some medical conditions. Medically called as dysphagia, this is the most common cause of Choking on Saliva. The problem with swallowing makes it tough for the person to clear the airway by swallowing the trapped saliva. There are basically two types of dysphagia namely oropharyngeal dysphagia which are usually caused due to various neurological or neuromuscular conditions[2]

The other type is the esophageal dysphagia which occurs as a result of some problems with the lower part of the esophagus. People with this form of dysphagia always complain of something being stuck on the back of the throat. Parkinson Disease and dementia are the most common neurological conditions that cause dysphagia resulting in Choking on Saliva.[2]

Lung Disorders: There are also certain lung disorders that can cause an individual to choke on saliva. Certain lung disorders cause hypersalivation making it tough to swallow all the saliva resulting in choking. The most common lung condition that causes choking on saliva is cystic fibrosis. It is a genetic disorder that causes a build-up of thick saliva and mucous which is tough to swallow. COPD and pneumonia are some other lung disorders that at times cause choking on saliva[2].

Muscle Disorders: Medical conditions that make the muscles of the body weak also are one of the causes for choking on saliva. This is because a weak muscle makes it tough for the person to cough out the saliva when choking on it. Additionally, certain muscle disorders also affect the esophagus and make it hard for saliva to pass through it causing choking. The most common example of a muscle disorder that causes choking on saliva is muscular dystrophy[2].

Immature Airway: This is seen in newborn babies. They have a still developing airway increasing their risk to choke on saliva. Additionally, due to the immature airway, the newborn babies are at increased risk of respiratory infections which further plays a part in the baby choking on saliva[2].

How To Prevent Choking On Saliva?

Choking on saliva can happen to anyone healthy or otherwise due to its close proximity with the windpipe. However, this is seen more in people with certain medical conditions that have been described above. Thus knowing ways to prevent it is quite important especially in people with conditions that increase the risk of choking. People with lung disorders need to practice breathing exercises regularly to keep the muscles around the throat and lungs strong thus minimizing the risk of choking[1, 2].

People with dysphagia should be involved with speech and swallowing therapy. The therapist will give them exercises which will make it easier for them to swallow and prevent choking on saliva. In cases if someone starts choking on saliva, they should be encouraged to cough it out instead of trying to swallow. In case, they are unable to either cough out the saliva or swallow and it starts to affect their breathing then such people should be taken to the nearest emergency room immediately for treatment[1, 2].

In summary, choking on saliva can be very scary for many people. Additionally, it also tends to be painful at times. Choking on saliva can happen to anyone but is seen commonly in people with neurological, neuromuscular, or pulmonary disorders. This is because all these conditions cause an individual to have problems with swallowing thus making it tough for them to either cough out or swallow saliva to get rid of the choking[1, 2].

It is vital for people who are at extremely increased risk of choking on saliva to work with their physicians to devise an optimal treatment plan to prevent occurrences of Choking on Saliva[1, 2].


Also Read:

Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:February 1, 2022

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