The soft palate is the soft tissue in the top of the back of your mouth. Behind that is the pharynx in the throat. Either part of the mouth can trigger gagging. The gag reflex is an adaptation designed to prevent choking. If something unexpectedly touches the soft palate when you are not swallowing, it triggers a convulsion in the back of the throat. This involuntary contraction is designed to stop food or water from going down your windpipe, or something too big to swallow from going into your throat.
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Gag Triggers and Problems
The gag reflex is highly variable, and not always useful. Anything that stimulates the back of the throat can potentially cause a gag reflex. Excessive mucus from a cold or sinus infection can make people gag, as can irritation and swelling from a sore throat or allergies. Gagging can also occur because of anxiety or feelings of nausea. In people with sensitive gag reflexes, even swallowing pills or eating certain foods can trigger gagging. The vagus nerve stimulated in the gag reflex can stimulate the vomit centre in the brain, causing vomiting. The more you gag, the more likely you are to vomit. For people with hyperactive gag reflexes, this can be a problem.
Treating an Oversensitive Gag Reflex
If your gag reflex has to do with a throat irritation, excessive mucus, or some other temporary condition, the best way to alleviate it is to treat the causes. For a sore, swollen throat, for example, gargling with saltwater will bring down swelling, reducing the gag reflex. Desensitisation also works well. Brush the back of your tongue right at the point where it makes you gag for a minute every night until the reflex lessens, for example. For gagging caused by psychological issues, using relaxation techniques works well. Deep breathing and meditation are frequently used to help with the gag reflex.
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