Help prevent choking

Swallowing involves the coordination of many muscles in the mouth and throat. The action pushes chewed food down toward the stomach. At the same time, the throat needs to close off the windpipe to the lungs.

Between 15% and 20% of older adults have trouble swallowing. Choking while eating or drinking is the fourth-leading cause of accidental death at home for people over age 65.

People with dentures or dental problems are at risk for choking because they can’t chew their food as well. People who have had a stroke or any health problem affecting the nerves and muscles around the neck are also at higher risk.

Signs of a swallowing problem include coughing after a swallow or a change in voice after a swallow. Some people with swallowing problems describe a feeling as if a pill has gotten stuck going down.

If your loved one seems to have swallowing problems, ask the doctor to order an evaluation. Speech therapists commonly do these evaluations and can help with special exercises and dietary suggestions.

Common causes of choking include

  • eating too fast;
  • taking big bites and not chewing food well;
  • walking, talking, or laughing while eating;
  • drinking alcohol before or during meals.

If the person you care for tends to choke, changing the habits listed above can certainly reduce the risk. Other techniques that can be helpful include

  • sitting up straight during the meal and afterward;
  • avoiding thick, sticky foods, such as peanut butter or caramel;
  • changing medications that contribute to dry mouth;
  • tucking the chin when swallowing.