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What to do if you feel like food is stuck in your throat

If you feel like you have food stuck in your throat, it can be uncomfortable, annoying or even painful. Here’s how to determine what’s causing the unpleasant sensation and how to get relief.

“The most common reason people feel like they have food stuck in their throat is dysphagia due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD),” says Loreli Garnica, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician. “GERD is also known as heartburn or reflux.”

That said, the first thing you want to do is make sure you don’t actually have food stuck in your throat, as this can cause a medical emergency.

“Food can get stuck in the top part of the esophagus, which can go into the windpipe and cause air obstruction and choking,” says Dr. Garnica.

What to do if someone is choking

The signs that someone is choking include:

  • Inability to talk

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Noisy or squeaky breathing

  • Blue lips, nails or skin

  • Skin that’s flushed, then turns pale or bluish

  • Coughing

  • Drooling

If a person can cough forcefully, encourage them to keep coughing. If they are choking and can’t talk or cough forcefully, try the following techniques from the American Red Cross:

  • Start by giving them five back blows. Bend them forward and hit them on their back between the shoulder blades with the heel of your hand. Repeat five times.

  • Perform the Heimlich maneuver and give them five abdominal thrusts. Stand behind the person and wrap your arms around their waist. If a child is choking, kneel behind them. Make a fist with one hand and place the thumb side at the person’s midsection. Cover your fist with your other hand. Squeeze their abdomen with five quick, upward thrusts.

  • Repeat these two techniques until the person can breathe or cough again. If they become unconscious, call 911 and start CPR.

  • Never perform a blind finger sweep (where you use your finger to try to dislodge the item from their mouth or throat). This can push the object further into their airway.

If you’re choking and alone:

  • Call 911.

  • Place your fist just above your belly button.

  • Wrap your other hand around your first.

  • Bend over a hard surface like a chair or countertop.

  • Firmly press your first inward and upward.

It can be helpful to take a first aid class to learn these techniques from a professional. Having these skills can save someone’s life.

Signs of gastroesophageal reflux disease

If you feel like food is stuck in your throat, but you’re not choking, the most common culprit is GERD. Sip some water and take an over-the-counter antacid like Tums, Dr. Garnica suggests.

Symptoms of GERD include:

  • Feeling like there’s a lump in your throat

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Chronic cough

  • A burning sensation in your chest (Unlike a heart attack, GERD presents as more of a burning sensation, while a heart attack feels like chest tightness or pressure, she says.)

For chronic heartburn symptoms, Dr. Garnica recommends making lifestyle changes first. The following lifestyle modifications can help relieve symptoms: 

  • Avoid triggers like spicy, fatty or acidic foods.

  • Don’t lie down for at least three hours after eating.

  • Quit smoking if you currently smoke.

  • Eat smaller meals.

  • Elevate the head of your bed by about six inches.

“If lifestyle changes don’t work, we have medications we can try, including over-the-counter and prescription antacids,” she says. “Left untreated, GERD can potentially cause damage to the esophagus and even lead to esophageal cancer.”

When to seek medical care if you feel like something is stuck in your throat

“Be aware of your symptoms and listen to your body,” says Dr. Garnica. “If you have any health concerns, it’s always a good idea to seek medical evaluation.”

We make getting great health care simple and convenient. Schedule an appointment today through your Piedmont MyChart account or our website.

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