How to Suppress the Gag Reflex

One of the most uncomfortable feelings you can experience is involuntary gagging. Unchecked, it can leave your throat raw and sore, and give you a painful case of laryngitis. If you have a sensitive gag reflex, you might have trouble swallowing pills, visiting the dentist, or eating foods that you're not particularly fond of. Perhaps every time you go to the doctor and have your sore throat cultured for strep, you almost lose your lunch on the poor doctor! The gag reflex is your body's natural defense against choking on foreign objects, but up to one-third of healthy people don't even have it![1] Fortunately, there are ways to ease your gag reflex, with some tricks and training as explained below.


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    Numb your soft palate. When an object touches the soft palate (far back in the roof of your mouth), it can trigger the gag reflex. You can use a numbing throat spray to desensitize the soft palate, or a gel that's normally used to relieve tooth pain. The effects should last for about an hour, and your soft palate will be less reactive.
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    Disengage your gag reflex. By gradually getting your soft palate accustomed to being touched, you can minimize the gag reflex, or perhaps even get rid of it completely. This is the first step that sword swallower must take[2] and it does require effort and patience over time:
    • Find out where your gag reflex starts. This can be done by simply using your toothbrush to brush your tongue. The point nearest the front of your tongue that makes you gag is where you want to concentrate.
    • Brush your tongue right where your gag begins. Yes, you'll gag, and it will be unpleasant—but not for long. Spend about ten seconds brushing that area (and gagging), and then call it a night.
    • Repeat the process over the next few nights in the exact same spot. You'll notice you gag less each time you do it.
    • Increase the brushing area. Once you can touch your toothbrush on that spot without gagging, it's time to move the toothbrush further back. Try brushing ¼ to ½ inch (6mm–12mm) behind where your gag used to begin. This is your new starting point. Repeat the process as you did in the first spot.
    • Continue moving the brush farther back. Each time you move the toothbrush back, your gag has been desensitized in the previous spot. Keep moving it farther and farther back until you've reached the farthest visual point of your tongue. Eventually, the toothbrush will come in contact with the soft palate, if it hasn't already.
    • Be persistent. This whole process should take approximately a month to complete. When the process is complete, you should be able to have a doctor swab the back of your throat without gagging. You might have to redo the process from time to time, as your reflex may return if you don't. A good way to keep yourself desensitized is to brush your tongue regularly. Not only will it help quell the gag reflex, it will also give you fresher breath!
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    Relax. The gag reflex is triggered by a combination of psychology and physiology. For some people, the psychological aspect will play a larger role. Maybe you've had a traumatizing experience at a doctor or dentist's office in the past, or in general, you have a fear of losing control. Communicate with the dentist or doctor until you feel confident that they will back off if you ask them to—knowing that you're in control will help you relax. Some of the steps above, such as controlled breathing, will help. You may also want to practice some form of meditation. In more extreme situations, some people find hypnosis works.
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    Lift both of your legs if you're sitting or lying down on your back. Tightening your abdominal muscles might help stop gagging.
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    Make a fist. Close your left thumb in your left hand and make a fist. Squeeze tight.
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    Put a little table salt on your tongue. Moisten the tip of your finger, dip it into some salt, and dab the tip of your tongue with that. Another way to do this is to put a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water, and rinse your mouth with that. Don't forget to spit!
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    Hum. You might find that it's difficult to gag and hum at the same time.
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    Listen to music. Distracting your mind can help keep it from giving too much focus to that which gags you.
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    Beware the gag reflex in the morning. Some people report that they're more likely to gag earlier in the day. Try to schedule the gag-inducing activity for the late afternoon or evening instead.
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    Breathe through your nose. Taking a nasal decongestant beforehand can help clear the nasal passageways and facilitate breathing, if your nose is congested. This method may not be a good idea if it's a foul smell that's triggering your gag reflex.


  • If using your fingers, always make sure they are clean in order to minimize the chances of infection.
  • Don't eat right before the activity that tends to trigger the gag reflex, to minimize the chances of vomiting.
  • Try keeping a journal to help you pinpoint a pattern of when the gag reflex shows up. It doesn't have to be anything fancy—just make note of the time, date, and activity you were doing.
  • Keep your fingers far away from your throat! That causes gagging and possibly vomiting.
  • Practice eating foods that make you gag. If you still gag, avoid the food.
  • Check to see if you have allergies. If you brush your teeth and you gag, it could be the toothpaste; if you find your gag reflex happening in the shower, it could be your soap that is triggering it. You can try changing products.
  • Focusing on deep breathes helps.
  • Breath through your nose.


  • Remember that the gag reflex is your body's way of protecting you from choking.
  • When disengaging the gag reflex with a toothbrush, don't start too far back. It is possible to desensitize a farther point in your tongue without first treating a spot toward the front, and this isn't what you're trying to achieve.
  • Consult your doctor. Excessive gagging could be a sign of a more serious condition, like GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), which has to do with your stomach and the acid levels in it.

Sources and Citations

  1. Pharyngeal sensation and gag reflex in healthy subjects. Davies, A., Kidd, D., Stone, S., MacMahon, J. (1995). Lancet 345:487–488

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