The Pharmacist Answers Podcast

Have a question for the pharmacist? Get your answers here! Clear explanations about complicated medical topics that anyone can understand.


Episode 115 - Gag Reflex

Gag Reflex Basics

The official name of your gag reflex is the pharyngeal reflex or laryngeal spasm.  Trigger points for the gag reflex can be found on the roof of the mouth, back of the tongue, in the tonsil area, the uvula, and the back of the throat.  The purpose of this reflex is to prevent objects from entering the throat that did not first progress through the normal swallowing process.  It also helps prevent choking.

Gag Reflex Progress

When the reflex is triggered, the soft palate raises to close off the nasal passage.  Then the pharyngeal muscles contract on both sides to try and force whatever made it too far down back up into the mouth.  If the input is strong enough, it can also trigger vomiting (this is how vomiting is induced in eating disorders such a bulimia).

Do you Gag?

One in three people lacks a gag reflex, which means rather large things can enter their throats without triggering a reflex.  This is possibly how sword-swallowing got its start.

The other side of this coin is someone with a hypersensitive gag.  They can have trouble swallowing large pills and large bites of food.  Dentist visits and even neckties can trigger this unpleasant reflex.  It can be a part of a larger issue, such as Sensory Processing Disorder or Autism.  Or it can be a preconditioned issue due to a previous experience.  In either case, speech or occupational therapy can be done and will include desensitizing areas of the mouth to touch.

Other Protective Reflexes
  1. The Reflexive Pharyngeal Swallow is a triggered swallow that clears the pharynx of residue.  The glottis will close and allow the pharynx to move stuff to the digestive tract.  This is a protective mechanism to keep stuff out of the airways.
  2. Phayngoglottal Closure Reflex happens when the glottis closes inside the larynx without the continuation of a swallow.
  3. Phango-Upper Esophageal Sphincter Contractile Reflex occurs during any type of reflux from the stomach.  While some stomach contents may make it past the lower esophageal sphincter, so the upper one prevents it reaching into the throat and mouth.
Bottom Line

All of these reflexes are protective to prevent choking or improper ingesting of things.  They can be damaged to different degrees during head trauma or stroke.  But surprisingly, smoking causes the most damage to the protective reflexes on the pharynx.



Mouth Parts

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Music Credits: Up In My Jam (All Of A Sudden) by - Kubbi Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported— CC BY-SA 3.0 provided by Audio Library


 2018-02-12  27m