Murray Grossan, MD, ear, nose and throat specialist, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. GrossanInstitute.com
Bottom Line: Here’s how to avoid spit “going down the wrong way.”
Why do I sometimes choke on my saliva? Does it mean that something is wrong?
Choking and coughing from inhaling our own saliva has happened to most of us. And in most cases, the embarrassment while red-faced, spluttering and trying to catch a breath is the worst thing to worry about.
If you’re otherwise healthy, the most common cause of choking on saliva is just being in a rush. We are all automatically swallowing our saliva all day. But actions such as talking too quickly, laughing too hard or turning your head quickly while swallowing can cause the normal automatic swallowing to turn into an inhalation—with the obvious result. You’ve probably already figured out the helpful tip here: Slow down!
On the other hand, your mouth may be too dry. Normally, salivary glands produce two to four pints of saliva daily. If you have dry mouth, not only do you not produce enough saliva but the saliva you do produce is thick and stringy—and easier to choke on.
Dry mouth can be caused by a number of things, including dehydration, mouth breathing, antihistamines, blood pressure drugs and certain other medications.
What helps: Mouthwashes and oral rinses made especially for dry mouth help stimulate the flow of saliva. Good brands to try are Biotene and ACT. Chewing gum also can get your salivary juices flowing. Sipping water frequently throughout the day also helps. Ask your doctor whether a medication you’re taking causes dry mouth and, if so, whether switching to an alternative makes sense.
Another cause of thick saliva is having too much mucus in your nasal passages, possibly because of postnasal drip from a cold or allergies. Using a saline nasal spray, a neti pot or a pulsating water nasal irrigation device can thin mucus and open clogged sinuses—as can drinking hot beverages.
If these remedies don’t help, or you if you seem to be choking on saliva frequently—especially if choking happens not just from saliva but also when you try to swallow foods or drinks—you should talk to your regular doctor or an otolaryngologist to rule out another health problem. There are many conditions ranging from mild to serious that can affect swallowing—examples include Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes the mouth and eyes to dry out…Parkinson’s disease, which weakens muscles including those in the throat…and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can cause choking when stomach acid backs up into the throat.