Most often, food gets stuck in the throat when we eat quickly and don't chew our food properly. Food items such as fish or chicken bones, steak pieces, or dry, crusty bread can become stuck in the esophagus. The esophagus is a muscular tube connecting the mouth to the stomach. When we eat, saliva from the mouth moistens food to help it easily pass through the esophagus down to the stomach. Occasionally, small particles of food will become trapped somewhere in between the mouth and the stomach causing pain, irritation, or a lumpy feeling in the throat.
Generally, small pieces of food stuck in the throat will dissolve on their own by being exposed to saliva from the mouth. You can wait for this to happen if symptoms are not overly troublesome. Chewing gum or sucking on lozenges increase the amount of saliva produced and can help with this process. For faster results, drink plenty of fluids such as water or warm tea. They lubricate the esophagus and allow the food piece to pass more easily. Drinking acidic beverages such as vinegar or carbonated beverages such as soda is not recommended. If the food piece is large these types of fluids can irritate the esophagus or stomach and exacerbate the pain or cause other complications.
If irritating symptoms continue even after drinking fluids or if the pain worsens, try to initiate the gag reflex. To do this, tickle the very back of your mouth where the soft palate ends with your finger. Activating the gag reflex reverses the process of normal swallowing and helps to regurgitate food stuck in the esophagus back up towards the mouth.
If several days have passed and the irritation persists or your pain worsens, you may need to go to the hospital to have it removed. Sometimes larger pieces of food that are lodged in the esophagus need to be removed with specialized medical equipment, such as an endoscope. An endoscope is a long, thin camera. Using this equipment, a doctor can see the piece of food that is stuck and remove it. Patients are frequently seen at hospitals for this very reason.
The best way to prevent food from becoming stuck in your esophagus is to take small bites, chew your food slowly, drink plenty of water when you swallow, and avoid eating hard, dry food. In addition, it is helpful to avoid smoking. Smoking decreases the amount of saliva that our mouths produce. This decreases lubrication and increases the potential for food to become stuck in the back of the mouth or the esophagus.
If the piece of food is large and starts to interfere with breathing it may develop into an emergency. The sudden onset of drooling, difficulty breathing, or inability to swallow may be the first signs of choking and they should alert you to call for help. If you find yourself in this situation, find someone to perform the Heimlich maneuver on you. To perform this maneuver on another person you must stand with your chest towards the back of the person who is choking. Reach around them and place one fist under the person's belly button. Wrap your other arm around them and grab your fist. Using forceful pressure, pull your fist inwards and upwards, towards the person's chest, causing them to cough up the piece of food. You may need to do this several times before it is effective.
When food gets stuck in the throat infrequently it is safe to assume that there is nothing to worry about. Alternatively, if it occurs frequently, it may be the first sign of an underlying medical condition. This is called dysphagia - the medical term for difficulty swallowing. If Dysphagia occurs on a regular basis, occurs from liquid ingestion, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as painful swallowing, weight loss, difficulty breathing, or slurred speech, then you should consult your doctor. These symptoms often indicate such conditions as abnormalities of the esophagus, cancer, stroke, or other neurological problems.