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What Really Happens When Food Goes Down the 'Wrong Pipe'?

If you've had a coughing fit while eating, you've probably heard that your food went "down the wrong pipe." But what is the "wrong pipe"? What's really happening?

By
Jake Rossen, Mental Floss
2-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Aspiration occurs when food or liquid enters the trachea rather than the esophagus—often referred to as "going down the wrong pipe." This triggers an adrenaline response and provokes coughing and discomfort, which usually dislodges invading food. If the food remains stuck, you have an obstructed airway and can now be officially said to be choking.

Your average person isn’t expected to be well-versed in the linguistics of human anatomy, which is how we wind up with "guns" for biceps and "noggins" for heads. So when swallowing something is followed by throat irritation or coughing, the fleeting bit of discomfort is often described as food “going down the wrong pipe.” But what’s actually happening?

You want your food to take the esophageal route, which leads to the stomach.

When food is consumed, HuffPost reports, more than 30 muscles activate to facilitate chewing and swallowing. When the food is ready to leave your tongue and head down to your stomach, it’s poised near the ends of two "pipes," the esophagus and the trachea. You want the food to take the esophageal route, which leads to the stomach. Your body knows this, which is why the voice box and epiglottis shift to close off the trachea, the “wrong pipe” of ingestion.

Since we don’t typically hold our breath when we eat, food can occasionally take a wrong turn into the trachea, an unpleasant scenario known as aspiration, which triggers an adrenaline response and provokes coughing and discomfort. Dislodging the food usually eases the sensation, but if it’s enough to become stuck, you have an obstructed airway and can now be officially said to be choking.

The “wrong pipe” can also be a result of eating while tired or otherwise distracted or the result of a mechanical problem owing to illness or injury.

You might also notice that this happens more often with liquids. A sip of water may provoke a coughing attack. That’s because liquids move much more quickly, giving the body less time to react.

Coughing tends to get the food moving back into the esophagus.

In extreme cases, food or liquids headed in the “wrong” direction can wind up in the lungs and cause pneumonia. Fortunately, that’s uncommon, and coughing tends to get the food moving back into the esophagus.

The best way to minimize the chances of getting food stuck is to avoid talking with your mouth full—yes, your parents were right—and thoroughly chew sensible portions.

If you experience repeated bouts of aspiration, it’s possible an underlying swallowing disorder or neurological problem is to blame. An X-ray or other tests can help diagnose the issue.

A version of this article was originally published on Mental Floss as "What Really Happens When Food Goes Down the 'Wrong Pipe'?". Read more from Mental Floss.

Medical Disclaimer

All content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Jake Rossen, Mental Floss

Jake Rossen is a senior staff writer for Mental Floss.