Photo: Doucefleur (Shutterstock)
When it’s working properly, the human body is an amazing feat of engineering. But when things go wrong, it suddenly transforms into a 20-year-old photocopier with a metastasizing paper jam. For example, eating is generally a pretty smooth experience—until you get a piece of food stuck in your throat that simply will not come loose.
Recently I was having lunch with my brother and ordered a green salad. I was hungry, so I inhaled that salad enthusiastically—literally, as it turns out, as a piece of leafy spinach got lodged in the back of my throat. I could breathe—it wasn’t choking me—it was just...stuck back there. I excused myself and tried to dislodge it with increasingly desperate throat-clearings, then returned to the table and tried to eat and drink even more energetically than usual to dislodge it, with zero results. When I went home and looked in a mirror, I could literally see that evil piece of spinach back there, mocking me.
If this has never happened to you, you are blessed. But it could happen to you, without warning. So let’s go over the various methods you can use to remove a (non-lethal) piece of food stuck in your throat, ranging from the clever to the terrifying.
Stay calm and drink soda
Obviously, if the hunk of food is obstructing your ability to breathe in any way, seek medical attention. This advice is for folks who have food stuck back there but aren’t in any sort of distress, unless mental anguish counts.
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So, the first thing to try is: Nothing. Your body is a pretty efficient food-dissolving machine, and there is a decent chance that your saliva and action of swallowing will eventually break down the offending piece of food enough to dislodge it. Wait a few hours to see if this works out for you.
While you’re waiting, drink some soda. There’s some evidence that soda—specifically Coca-Cola—can help break down food stuck in the esophagus, so slamming a few cans of while you’re busy not panicking about the obstruction in your throat is a low-effort method worth attempting. Worst-case scenario is you’re now over-caffeinated and bloated in addition to having a hunk of food in your throat.
A related treatment is to take a product like Gas-X that contains the active ingredient simethicone. These over-the-counter medications release carbon dioxide in your stomach and esophagus, which can help force the food loose. Similarly, Alka-Seltzer or baking soda in water (any kind of effervescing product, really) might do the trick.
Dislodge it with more food
If waiting it out doesn’t work and all the soda in the world is just giving you a stomachache, there are a few more things you can try.
Eating more can help, especially if you try a soft, moist food—bread dipped in something will form a thick, textured blob that might grab onto the interloping piece of food and pull it down with it as you swallow. If damp bread doesn’t sound good, try eating some banana, which has a similar consistency.
Another effective method is to eat some butter. The theory is that butter will “lubricate” your esophagus, reducing the friction that’s holding your hunk of food in place.
None of these tricks worked for me, but they’re safe and easy enough to try, so they are worth a shot.
Use a chopstick (gently)
I started to worry about going to sleep with this thing stuck in the back of my throat and aspirating it, which meant I either had to try something drastic or head to the emergency room. (I should note here that going to the ER is by far the more reasonable thing to do, so that is my official advice if the tricks above don’t work. However, I’ve never been a reasonable person.) As I could literally see the spinach back there. I figured all I needed to do was manually manipulate the hunk of greeny death and I’d be free of my nightmare.
I couldn’t quite reach it with my finger (I considered the possibility that inducing vomiting would dislodge it, but I also considered the possibility that it wouldn’t, and so held it in reserve). Instead, I grabbed a chopstick. With a flashlight in one hand and the chopstick in the other, eyes watering and gag reflex fully engaged, I went in there like I was playing a Blumhouse version of the game Operation and nudged that piece of spinach out of the way. A second later, I was able to spit it into the sink. Sweet relief
Do I recommend the chopstick method? Not unreservedly. There are probably a dozen ways it could have gone wrong. But it did work. I avoided a trip to the ER and immediately felt 100 percent better. If this ever happens to you, as long as you can breathe normally, the best thing to do is relax and just keep swallowing, while indulging in some soft foods and fizzy drinks. Chances are they’ll take care of it. Most importantly: If this has never happened to you, be sure to chew your food thoroughly so it never does.