When you eat food, your body naturally works to push the food down into your throat and promote swallowing. In contrast, your body can trigger a gag reflex to prevent swallowing when it detects something foreign. Certain smells, flavors, or other sensations can trigger this reflex in the body and hinder your ability to swallow. While this can be beneficial when eating something that isn’t good for you, it can become a problem when it comes to dental treatments.
But what is this gag reflex, and what does it mean to you? Are there things you can do to help reduce a gag reflex?
Here we take a closer look at exactly what a gag reflex is, why the body triggers this reflex, what can cause the reflex, and things you can do to help reduce an overly sensitive gag reflex.
- A gag reflex is strong in newborns and provides a natural way for the body to protect a baby from swallowing objects it shouldn’t. In most cases, a gag reflex begins to diminish when a child begins eating solid foods.
- Studies show that nearly 74% of all people possess a gag reflex that can range from minor to so sensitive that it affects daily life activities and prevents them from making dental appointments.
- There are five places within your mouth that can trigger a gagging reflex when touched: the base of the tongue, palate, uvula, fauces, and the back of the pharyngeal wall.
What is a gag reflex?
A gag reflex, or gagging, is a natural way that the body uses to close off entry into the throat and prevent swallowing. When the gag reflex is triggered, the pharynx contracts while the larynx pushes upward to prevent anything from moving downward. This natural defense mechanism is ideal for young infants and can be triggered often. As you get older, this reflex often diminishes. However, many people still experience sensitive gag reflexes that are often triggered by various different stimuli that include physical sensations, smells, and tastes.
Ways to reduce the gag reflex
While having a gag reflex can be beneficial when it comes to eating spoiled food or encountering horrible smells, if it interferes with everyday life or affects your ability to receive dental care, you may need to explore ways to help reduce your gag reflex. The good news is there are several methods available to try, though it may take trying a couple before you find the right method that works for you.
1. Acupressure or acupuncture
The idea behind acupressure or acupuncture is to help the body find balance. The application of needles or pressure to specific pressure points of the body can help your body find that balance and reduce your sensitivity to specific gagging triggers.
2. Psychological therapy
Psychological approaches aim to overcome specific stimuli that can trigger your gag reflex. For example, connecting a bad case of the stomach flu with the last meal you ate before you become ill, or a bad experience as a child having a tooth pulled. In these cases, the smell of that specific food or undergoing current dental care can trigger a gag reflex.
Psychological approaches to help reduce a gag reflex can include relaxation techniques, distraction, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, and desensitization.
3. Oral and topical medicine
The application of topical medications, such as a local anesthetic, can help reduce sensitivity within the mouth and reduce the chance of a gag reflex during a dental procedure. Another option is to take an over-the-counter antihistamine or prescribed sedative before any scheduled dental procedure.
4. Swallowing methods
If swallowing objects, such as a pill, trigger your gag reflex, it can make any medical treatment difficult. Your doctor or dentist can advise different methods for swallowing a pill that is less likely to trigger a reflex, such as placing a pill in yogurt or pudding or swallowing the pill with your chin pointed downward, for example.
5. Temporal tap
The temporal tap is a non-invasive procedure designed to reduce the risk of gag reflex, as well as dimmish feelings of nausea, calm anxiety, and reduce panic attacks. The temporal tap involves tapping the skin around the front of your ear, in a circular pattern while slowly creating a loose circle that reaches the back of the ear. You can choose to do the temporal tap at home, or your dentist may provide it before a dental procedure.
If none of these methods allow you to control your gag reflex enough for dental or medical procedures, your dentist or physician may recommend anesthesia, such as nitrous oxide, to put you to sleep during your treatment.
7. Prosthetics or modified procedures
If specific treatments or oral appliances are the roots of your gag reflex problems, your dentist may alter how they treat your teeth in order to avoid triggering specific gag reflexes. If an oral appliance, such as dentures, triggers a gag reflex, your dentist may adjust or modify your denture in order to reduce the risk of gagging.
What causes the gag reflex?
There are two distinct factors that can stimulate a gag reflex: a physical stimulus, known as somatogenic, or a psychological stimulus, known as psychogenic. While one of these factors alone can be enough to trigger a gag reflex, they are often experienced together. To get a better understanding, let’s take a closer look at each potential stimulus.
A psychogenic stimulus is a mental trigger that can stimulate the gag reflex. These stimuli can include the smell, taste, sight, or even thought of a specific item or situation that triggers the body’s natural protective instincts. For example, if you got food poisoning the last time you ate a deviled egg, the sight or smell of eggs may be enough to trigger a gag reflex.
The stimulation of a physical location is the most common cause of triggering a gag reflex when you undergo dental care. There are five places in the back of the mouth that, when touched, can trigger a gag reflex. These five locations include:
- The base of your tongue
- The upper palate, or the roof of your mouth
- The uvula, or the little ball-like hanging object at the back of your throat
- The fauces, or the arched opening at the back of the mouth that leads to the pharynx
- The back of the pharyngeal wall
When any of these areas are disturbed, such as during a dental exam or cleaning, they can trigger a gag reflex that makes it difficult to provide dental care.
Why do some people have a more sensitive gag reflex?
While a gag reflex is a normal reaction by the body, it usually decreases as you age. However, there are many people that still experience increased sensitivity and continually trigger a gag reflex. Factors that can increase your risk of triggering your gag reflex include:
- You have a nasal obstruction
- Certain gastrointestinal disorders
- Poorly fitting dentures or other dental appliances
- History of smoking
- An irregularly-shaped soft palate
Is it possible not to have a gag reflex?
While a gag reflex is a normal reaction by the body, not everyone experiences a gag reflex, even when one of the five locations in the mouth experience contact. In this case, a person may be less sensitive and is yet to experience a sensation strong enough to trigger gagging.
Identifying and understanding your gag reflex
If you experience regular gag reflexes, it is important to learn to identify your triggers and speak with your physician or dentist in order to seek treatment. While an overly-sensitive gag reflex may not seem like a big deal, it can affect the ability to provide you with appropriate dental and medical care. For example, if swallowing a pill triggers a gag reflex, your physician may have difficulty treating certain medical conditions. If your gag reflex is triggered by dental care, avoiding that care can increase your risk of tooth decay and gum disease.
Adjusting to or treating a sensitive gag reflex
At Soundview Family Dental, our team understands how difficult it can be to live with an overly sensitive gag reflex, but we also understand the importance of regular dental care in order to avoid serious concerns, such as tooth decay. If you experience gagging when undergoing dental care, our team can work with you to find the solution that best fits your needs and allows you to receive the dental care you need.
To learn more, schedule a dental visit with our team, and let us help you keep your smile beautiful and healthy for years to come.