Young Caucasian woman gags as an octopus tentacle emerges from her mouth. Another octopus tentacle is reaching out from her bowl of soup as if to steal her fish.
What It Really Means When Food Goes Down 'The Wrong Pipe'
By Elias Nash
It could hardly be considered medical terminology, but the term "wrong pipe" is actually quite accurate for when someone coughs or gags while eating or drinking. We really do have two pipes descending from the back of our throats; the correct pipe, the esophagus, is for swallowing food, and the “wrong” pipe, the trachea, is for breathing, which is why it’s protected by a flap of tissue called the epiglottis.
Cedars-Sinai explains that, in a medical context, aspiration occurs when "something enters your airway or lungs by accident" or when food passes through the trachea instead of the esophagus. Because swallowing uses more than 30 muscles, aspiration is often caused by a cognitive lapse, like being distracted while swallowing, or by physical factors, such as sensory abnormalities or recent throat surgery.
When aspiration happens, the body reacts quickly, triggering coughing and gagging reflexes to expel what has entered the trachea, but in the rare cases that coughing doesn't dislodge the food in your trachea, you can develop pneumonia or bronchitis. The Cleveland Clinic suggests calling a doctor if you still cough two hours after something goes down the wrong pipe or if you cough up blood at any point.
You may have been taught not to talk with your mouth full because it's rude, but more importantly, it actually helps prevent aspiration. Another way to prevent aspiration is to take your time while chewing and concentrate on your meal, especially on certain dry foods you're more likely to choke on, like seaweed or popcorn.