What Really Happens When Food Goes 'Down The Wrong Pipe?'

The body is a wonder. We never really think about the complex processes our digestive system goes through in order to get our food to where it needs to go. It's such an easy task to scarf something down, especially when it's a particularly tasty morsel or you're famished. There are actually around 50 pairs of muscles, according to Healthline, that work together with your nervous system to ensure this process is a smooth one. Unfortunately, our bodies aren't perfect, and food may occasionally slip into the uncomfortably adjacent windpipe instead. So if you're slurping a steaming bowl of ramen, you should probably slow your roll and chew your food thoroughly to avoid it going down the wrong pipe!

It's an unfortunate experience and has likely happened to you a handful of times in your life. You're taking bites of your meal and someone makes you laugh, turning what was at first a very "haha" moment into a "Wait, am I dying?" minute or two of panic as you try not to cough up a lung. After the hacking fit finally ends, it's hard not to wonder if all the misplaced food was successfully dislodged or if you should be worried. This is called aspiration, and here's what happens in your body in the unlucky event that it occurs.

What happens when food goes 'down the wrong pipe'

When you consume solid food, your body prepares to send the meal on its way toward digestion. As soon as food starts being chewed, saliva is produced in your mouth to soften it as you swallow. Once your tongue guides the food to the back of the throat, the epiglottis muscle automatically closes your windpipe (trachea), stopping your breathing and directing food down the right path. If you get distracted while eating and let a breath slip through while there's food still in your mouth, the food could get sucked into the trachea instead. When this happens, your body's fight-or-flight response triggers increased production of adrenaline in order to boost your heart rate and blood pressure (via Cleveland Clinic). Then your trusty gag reflex should kick in to help rid your airway of what's obstructing it.

"Aspiration" is the medical term for when food or drinks make their way into your windpipe, according to UTHealth Houston Mcgovern Medical School. They note that symptoms can include strong coughing, choking, trouble swallowing, stress while eating, and weight loss. If you often experience aspiration while eating, that isn't normal and should be brought to a medical professional's attention. The saliva is filled with bacteria, and continued food inhalation increases the likelihood of developing pneumonia.

Generally speaking, the body is pretty efficient when it comes to removing obstructions like food and drink from your airways, though it never hurts to add a few extra chews to each mouthful of food for good measure.