In humans, the airway for breathing and the food passageway is common until the end of the throat. Here, a bifurcation occurs between the digestive and respiratory tracts. The trachea or windpipe leads air to the lungs, whereas the esophagus leads food and water to the stomach. The epiglottis, a thin cartilaginous flap, ensures that while one is swallowing, the trachea remains shut. Likewise, the same flap closes the esophagus while one is breathing.
Choking while eating occurs when food particles enter the trachea while swallowing. This is often due to the epiglottis not closing the trachea properly, as there could have been a quick transition between breathing and swallowing. Choking can also occur due to the lodging of other particles in the airway. Beyond the trachea, the pathway splits into the left and right bronchi which go into the lungs. These are narrow tracts through which large objects cannot pass. This is why large objects are stuck inside the trachea, blocking the passage of air for breathing.
The body has its mechanisms to prevent choking from happening. For example, the gag reflex makes sure that unwanted objects are kept out of the respiratory tract. It does so by triggering a reverse contraction of throat muscles to eject out the particles that may cause choking. However, in many older people, these reflexes might be lost due to aging.
The Risk of Choking
Choking is a medical emergency because it cuts off breathing that is essential for sustaining life. The various risks of choking are given as follows:
Toddlers and very young children are susceptible to choking because they tend to put things into their mouths. Unfortunately, these young kids would not realize it when they choke themselves by swallowing objects such as toys.
It is thus advisory to keep swallowable objects out of reach of kids. In addition, many toys intended for kids often come with a choking hazard warning if small pieces are present in them.
In adults, however, choking occurs during meals. Thus, it has been dubbed as â€˜cafÃ© coronaryâ€™ because of the frequency of occurrence in restaurants and mistaken for a heart attack.
While eating, if food is not chewed properly, it could lead to choking. Talking or laughing while eating also makes one susceptible to choking, as food could easily get into the trachea.
Consumption of alcohol is a contributing factor to choking in adults as it suppresses the reflexes of the throat that prevents choking.
In older adults, the loss of muscle tone leads to ineffective gag reflex. This, along with cognitive disorders such as Alzheimerâ€™s disease, can increase the likelihood of choking in older adults.
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