Many people have a very sensitive gag reflex which causes them to gag when they get dental work done or even brush their teeth. This can be caused by a variety of reasons. The biggest being that during early development, the gag reflex wasn’t pushed back far enough on the tongue.

What is a Gag Reflex?

child brushing teeth

A gag is a pharyngeal reflex or laryngeal spasm which occurs when something touches sensitive spots in your mouth. These key spots are the back of your throat, the top of your mouth, your tonsils’ area and the back of your tongue.

As babies are learning to eat their gag reflex naturally moves back in their mouth. When babies put things in their mouths it helps push the gag reflex back further in the mouth. Newborn babies gag because they do not have developed the skills to chew food and swallow. The forward gag reflex would force items out of the baby’s mouth reducing the chance they might accidentally try to swallow it. Breast milk or formula from a bottle doesn’t require much more than sucking and swallowing. 

Anything that goes into a newborn’s mouth that isn’t meant to be there allows the baby to gag it up to keep them from choking. Babies, as they grow, start to become adventurous and using their mouths to learn about the world. They will shove toys and anything they can into their mouth. As they do this is forces that reflex further and further back in the mouth.

How Developmental Problems Cause a Strong Gag Reflex

Some babies don’t have the habit of putting things in their mouths and their gag reflex doesn’t get pushed back in their throat. This could happen due to some trauma or even a lack of interest. Trauma could be something like croup or the flu that causes congestion that the newborn isn’t able to cough up on their own requiring medical assistance such as suctioning to remove the material. This is very uncomfortable for the child and they may be more reluctant to put things in their mouth – even food.

Through Occupational Therapy (OT) and/or Speech Therapy this issue can be reversed. The sooner it is caught and dealt with the easier it is for the child to work past it. It could take anywhere from a couple of sessions to a year or longer to get the child back on a healthy track. 

In the end, if your gut says your child is more than just being picky, talk to your doctor about getting tested. They can refer you to specialists, such as Early Intervention or Developmental Pediatricians. From there they’ll test the child and recommend what therapy is best.

Why We Have a Gag Reflex

why we have a gag reflex

The gag reflex, while sometimes annoying, is a survival technique to prevent us from choking on something in our mouths. Have you ever seen something or eaten something that caused you to immediately gag? It’s that reflex that is designed to help you. This could have been used to prevent us from eating spoiled food that would likely make us sick, or to just stick with foods that we know are safe.

It is also used to prevent choking. In your throat, you have two tubes, one that goes to your stomach, where the food goes down (esophagus). The other one goes to your lungs (windpipe). Your throat knows when you are breathing in air or eating or drinking. 

When you are eating or drinking it blocks off your windpipe to prevent choking. If something that doesn’t belong in the windpipe goes down it or if an object that is too large for your esophagus and could cause blockage to the windpipe you will, hopefully, gag.

How to Combat Your Gag Reflex

Some people have such a bad gag reflex that they will gag at the dentist or even just from brushing their teeth. Focusing on anything else to distract from gagging can help. This can be anything that is calming. Some people may listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts to keep my mind distracted; all the while keeping the body relaxed.

The dentist may be extremely hard if you have a gag reflex. They do offer topical numbing solutions that can combat the gag reflex. This can work in some cases. Another way to combat a gag reflex is to breathe through your nose. Do not try to swallow your saliva as that will trigger you to gag or cough. Another trick is to hold your thumb to distract you from what is causing you to gag.

Desensitizing Yourself To Keep From Gagging

The best way to relieve yourself of a gag reflex is to desensitize the sensitive areas of your mouth. You could try something like a vibrating toothbrush which is often recommended by occupational therapists to kids when they have a bad gag reflex. This is a non-invasive way to get used to having things touch the mouth. 

A child may need to be eased into this process. Going back to the vibrating toothbrush, you may need to start by letting it touch areas that are less sensitive, like his feet. (Make sure the toothbrush is washed while trying this). Once the child starts to relax doing this, the same process can be done on the arms or legs. 

Finally, try gently touching it to the lip and tap the hand. This process requires patience and may take the course of several weeks to be fully effective. Once the child is comfortable they will take it and play with it, hopefully chewing on it, while they play. 

Try The Squishes Technique

Another technique that occupational therapists use to desensitize is called “squishes”. These are compression squeezes on the arms and legs of the child. The squeezes are firm, but gentle. Many children will find them to be comforting like a hug. 

You can do these “squishes” if the child starts to gag when food is near them. Slowly, as they become less sensitive to the sight of food the child will progress and not need the desensitizing “squishes” anymore.

These are some of the ways you can reduce your gag reflex and brush better.

Karl Townsend Administrator
Having suffered for decades, I know a thing or two about bad oral hygiene. That\'s why I started this site. To help educate and inform visitors on good oral products and how to keep your teeth and gums healthy.
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