The cough reflex is part of the body’s self-defense system against foreign particles entering the respiratory system. The trachea and upper airway have irritant receptors which sense the particles and activate the cough. The chest and throat muscles contract in sequence, resulting in a sudden, strong airflow to help expel the offending material.
When people cough or clear their throat frequently during meals, it suggests that the swallowing and respiratory systems are not working safely together. The swallow muscles may not be correctly pushing the food or drink into the esophagus or the top of the airway may not be sealing closed quickly enough prevent food or drink from leaking in. If the systems are not working safely together, a person with a weak cough or inability to cough is even more likely to have food or drink cause injury to the lungs. Build-up of food or drink particles in the lungs can cause aspiration pneumonia, which may require hospitalization.
If you are having coughing or throat clearing during meals, you should discuss this with your doctor. A swallowing evaluation can help determine if the swallowing muscles are safely protecting your lungs. Special exercises can be prescribed to help improve your swallow ability. Swallow safely for good health!