Food going down the wrong way : what it is?

We say something “went down the wrong way” when a piece of food enters the windpipe instead of the digestive tube.

The food or drink enters the larynx, trachea or lungs instead of the oesophagus causing the patient to cough and splutter or have difficulty in breathing.
The term “aspiration” is used when food is inhaled into the lungs. When aspiration occurs at each mouthful or sip, the patient is diagnosed with the condition known as dysphagia.

Who is affected?

The condition usually occurs in young children and elderly people but may also affect patients following a stroke. Bad posture may also trigger the problem.

What should I look out for?

Aspiration may manifest as coughing, suffocation, or impaired breathing.



What should I do if it happens?

What to do:

  • Ask the person to hold their breath for an instant
  • Breathe in gently through the nose
  • Cough as hard as possible with mouth open to expel the blockage
  • Perform first aid such as the Heimlich manoeuvre

Do not:

  • Pat the person’s back
  • Make them drink
  • Raise their arms

All three can lead to total suffocation and/or block the object in the trachea.
If aspiration is recurrent or symptomatic, consult a doctor and test swallowing with a specialist speech therapist.

What are the solutions?

Posture correction may be sufficient. If not, Thickeners may be added to drinks and food may be mashed or puréed.