scribble drawing of a man in a striped shirt choking, and the stripes on his shirt twist and tangle over his chest

Can COPD Cause Choking?

Mom and I were enjoying a cup of coffee one morning when she started coughing. It started as a tickle, and then suddenly she was gasping for air. Jumping out of my chair, I quickly started patting her back and instructed her to raise her right hand. It makes me tense just remembering. She coughed for several minutes before finally taking a relaxing deep breath. I began to wonder, can COPD cause choking?

Of course, mom felt self-conscious and hedged giving me a direct answer. She said that the coffee was “thin”, and “slipped down the wrong pipe”. I understand that some food and drinks are easier to swallow than others, but we began to talk about choking in general. I learned quite a bit that day, and mom was feeling better too.

The truth about COPD and choking

While mom and I knew that she had begun to choke more frequently, she sometimes coughed more too. In fact, when she was alone, it was sometimes frightening for her. I learned that she frequently bent forward in her chair to try and exhale and dislodge food that needed to be removed from her windpipe.

Always hopeful

Mom loved the internet and ran a little website. She also belonged to several forums. She began to talk to her friends, and also started looking at ways to prevent choking in her COPD online communities. It wasn’t long before she found an online study about it. I remember how excited she was. It was published by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care.1

The research was conducted at the Pittsburgh Veterans program. They conducted spirometry tests on people who had varying stages of COPD, and also were on an oxygen program. The control group was made up of those who did not have COPD. They discovered breathing patterns during inhale and exhale that are naturally coordinated by your body. This was the first study that proved that these patterns were shown to become disrupted in many patients, including those with lung issues. Yes, COPD patients experience choking more frequently.1

Why and how does this happen?

What happens is that swallowing usually occurs during early exhalation. Then it is usually followed by another exhale. Breathing and swallowing problems can start when the upper airway competes for room. When you think about it, breathing, drinking, and eating all share this space. It makes sense that they may compete with one another for space during mealtime. With some time and attention, mom was able to become more aware of what caused her to choke, and how to prevent it.

Summing it all up

What mom learned was that COPD can cause choking, but she also learned that she could create ways of developing new habits. In time, it helped her reduce the choking and coughing spells. As always, I felt better after we talked about it. We even came up with ways to prevent her from choking in the future. Knowing that her research would help her online friends meant a lot to mom. She jumped right on and shared it with her group. She loved sharing how to live longer and stronger in spite of COPD.

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