Do you know why you cannot swallow and breathe at the same time?

Do you know why you cannot swallow and breathe at the same time?

Last Reviewed : 12/30/2020
Do you know why you cannot swallow and breathe at the same time?

Like talking and laughing while eating, we often choke and cough violently when we try to swallow and breathe at the same time. Have you ever wondered why that is? You probably have not. Well, it is due to the aspiration of ingested food or water into the lungs through larynx and trachea. Did that make any sense to you? It probably did not, but we will break it down for you shortly.


How Food Bolus Goes into the Esophagus

Within the neck region, the esophagus and trachea are close each other. The esophagus is the food pipe that delivers the food bolus from the oropharynx to the stomach. Similarly, the trachea is the windpipe that serves as a passage for air transmission from the nasopharynx to the lungs. They both share a common passage at the posterior pharynx, increasing the possibility for the food bolus to divert and go into the larynx instead of the esophagus. When the food enters the windpipe and reaches the lungs, it triggers many symptoms like choking, coughing, lung infection, and, sometimes, death.

The good news is, nature has provided the larynx with a flap, called epiglottis, to cover it when the food is being swallowed. Swallowing is a complex mechanism. At the initiation of the swallowing process, the food bolus is pushed down by the tongue into the throat, producing contraction of various muscles in the throat. It causes contraction of the uvula, which lifts up to the nasal passages. Similarly, the epiglottis is pushed down, vocal cords closed, the larynx is pulled up and forward to close the windpipe. All the air passages are sealed, and breathing is temporarily inhibited. The closure of the air passages occurs to ensure that the food bolus goes into the esophagus and not enter the larynx.



When Food is Finally Swallowed

Once the bolus is swallowed, the contracted muscles in the throat now relax. In addition to it, the uvula and epiglottis go back to their pre-contraction positions to open up the nasal passage and the windpipe to resume the breathing. It is a natural process, but it can be triggered when we are talking and laughing while eating. No doubt, this can lead to dire consequences. So, listen to your elders when they advice you to keep your mouths shut while eating and enjoy the meal.

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