Everyone has a gag reflex. Also known as the pharyngeal reflex, it is a natural phenomenon that occurs when you stick something in your mouth that goes toward the back of the throat and touches the soft palate, creating a feeling as if you are going to throw up. The purpose of the gag reflex is to prevent anything that isn’t part of the natural eating and swallowing process from entering the throat and choking you by obstructing the respiratory tract.
The problem arises when an individual’s gag reflex is overactive. For example, some people gag every time they brush their teeth, which can affect their personal oral care. And some people have a gag reflex so strong that it keeps them from seeing the dentist altogether.
What Causes an Overactive Gag Reflex?
An overactive gag reflex occurs when the normal gag reflex becomes heightened for some reason. Sometimes, it is a learned or conditioned response that was caused by a previous experience, such as having dental impressions made. About 10 to 15 percent of the population has this sensitivity and will gag while eating sticky foods such as bananas and mashed potatoes that tend to get stuck in the mouth.
The overactive gag reflex can be caused by illness, fear and anxiety, a sensitive palate or learned behavior. Generally, it is not life threatening; however, it can cause oral health problems if it is keeping you from good habits around dental hygiene.
How to Lessen Your Gag Reflex
If you are having problems gagging, here are some things you can try to reduce your gag reflex, particularly when you are visiting the dentist.
- Try carefully de-sensitizing the area by locating your gag reflex with your toothbrush and gently brush for 10 seconds each night. It’s unpleasant, but it can help de-sensitize the area.
- Concentrate on breathing through your nose instead of your mouth.
- Don’t worry about drool! When you try to swallow your saliva while dental work is being done, you may trigger the reflex.
- Distract yourself. Listen to music through headphones and think about anything else other than the dental work being done.
- Ask for a topical anesthetic. A spray or gel can numb the area and eliminate the gag reflex trigger.
- Ask the dentist to adjust your position so you are not reclined. Some dental work may be performed while you are sitting up. If you must be reclined, a rubber mouth dam can be used to provide a barrier and keep fluids and other dental debris from entering the mouth and throat.
- Dental sedation with nitrous oxide can also significantly reduce or eliminate gagging.
The most important thing is to talk to your dentist at Enlighten Dental Care about an overactive gag reflex so that we can help you relax and accommodate your needs while making sure you are receiving the best dental care possible. Call us today at (336) 765-0904 to set up your appointment!