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The Gag Reflex

August 18, 2019

The gag reflex (pharyngeal reflex) is the involuntary contraction of the back of the throat, and it is triggered by touching the roof of the mouth, the back of the tongue, the back of the throat, or the area around the tonsils. The purpose of the gag reflex is to prevent oral contents from entering the throat, except during normal swallowing, thus protecting the airway and preventing choking. The reflex is usually only triggered by large objects that approach the back of the mouth, but in some people this reflex is hypersensitive, and can get activated by much smaller objects and gentler touches.

Anatomy of the back of the throat (

There are a few objects that may cause a patient to gag in the dental chair. Impression trays and materials are the most common. Impression materials can have a runny consistency, and can sometimes feel like they are running down the back of the throat. Other objects that cause gagging can include dental x-ray films, dental drill heads, or even the basic instruments such as probes and mouth mirrors.

Here are a few tricks you can use to help out with gagging:

  1. Take deep, slow, steady breaths through the nose
  2. Do not attempt to swallow your saliva (let the suction do the work and let the assistant know if there is too much water in your mouth)
  3. Lean forward, if you are able (usually you can only do this when taking impressions)
  4. Imagine you are somewhere else, or bring a stress ball with you. Distract your thoughts!
Suction removing water from a drill smoothing a filling

Here are a few tricks that your dentist can use to help you out:

  1. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the tongue
  2. Place numbing cream or spray over the problem areas
  3. Give an anaesthetic injection to numb the tongue
  4. Administer nitrous oxide gas, also known as ‘laughing gas’
  5. Try not touch the tongue (it is possible)
Suction retracts cheek for vision and safety

Dr Esther

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Reminerlisation of white patches on teeth