What to Know About Food Impaction

Food stuck in the throat may need treatment to remove it

When food becomes stuck in the esophagus (the food tube), it is called food impaction. One reason food may become impacted is that it is swallowed before it is chewed well. Another cause is when the muscles in the esophagus aren’t working as well as they should, such as from a disease, condition, or injury.

Woman has a problem swallowing

Sac C Wat'hn Buy Thna Thwi Phl / EyeEm / Getty Images

What Is Food Impaction?

Food impaction is common and is usually very treatable. However, it can be an emergency. In some cases it can be fatal, so seeking treatment for symptoms is important.

Esophagus Function

The digestion of food starts in the mouth. Food is broken down by saliva while it is chewed by the teeth. It is then swallowed and enters the esophagus.

Food travels down the esophagus and into the stomach. The muscles inside the esophagus help move food down through it. The movement the muscles inside the esophagus make is called peristalsis. If food gets caught somewhere between the mouth and the stomach, it may become impacted. 

Impacted food may prevent other food from being swallowed and going down the esophagus to the stomach. 

Food Impaction vs. Dysphagia

Dysphagia is a condition that causes difficulty in swallowing. Food impaction can be a cause of acute (sudden) dysphagia.

Some of the causes of dysphagia include:

  • Allergies: Allergic reactions that cause difficulty swallowing (uncommon)
  • Diffuse spasm: Spasms in the esophagus that can lead to problems swallowing
  • Foreign object: Something caught in the throat that may cause temporary swelling 
  • Functional esophageal disorders: Problems with the esophagus that are caused by a structural problem
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus causing inflammation and narrowing 
  • Opioid-induced esophageal dysfunction: Pain medications that include opioids may have an effect on the muscles in the esophagus
  • Tumors (rarely)

Symptoms of dysphagia can include:

  • A buildup of mucus in the esophagus
  • Chest pain
  • Food impaction
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Weight loss (from avoiding food)

Who’s at Risk?

Food impaction is more common in older adults, especially over the age of 70. However, it can also occur in younger people who have conditions that affect the throat, such as eosinophilic esophagitis.

The risk factors for food impaction include:

  • Abnormalities in the esophagus: Problems with the structure or muscles of the esophagus
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis: An inflammatory condition that can cause swelling
  • Peptic strictures: Chronic reflux disease that causes a narrowing of the esophagus
  • Schatzki rings: Mucosal rings that form in the lower esophagus

When to See a Healthcare Provider

In some cases, having a food impaction is a reason to see a healthcare provider. Food getting caught in the esophagus can be an emergency.

Some of the symptoms indicating food is lodged in the esophagus are:

  • A feeling of something stuck in your throat
  • Choking after eating
  • Trouble breathing
  • Vomiting after eating

A food impaction can be an emergency. Seek care immediately for any of these symptoms:


  • Difficulty breathing or noisy breathing
  • Fainting
  • Inability to talk
  • Losing consciousness
  • Turning pale or bluish

Diagnosing Food Impaction

A diagnosis of food impaction may involve a few steps. First, there will be a medical history taken, and your healthcare provider will need to know your symptoms, when they started, and what was the last thing that you ate. 

They will also need to know if there are any diseases or conditions of the esophagus that could be contributing to an impaction. An X-ray may be done. This can be used to locate where the food is in the esophagus and its size.

An endoscopy, in which a thin tube is inserted through the mouth and down into the esophagus, may also be used to diagnose as well as treat the impaction.

Treatment Options

There are a few treatment options for food impaction. The healthcare provider will help in making a decision about which option to use.

Medication: Some drugs can help relax the muscles in the esophagus. If the muscles are relaxed enough, the food could start to move down the esophagus and into the stomach. 

Drugs such as butylscopolamine, glucagon, calcium channel blockers, benzodiazepines, and nitrates are all used to treat food impaction. Medications might be less successful in people who have a physical reason for the impaction, such as a narrowed esophagus.

Endoscopy: Impacted food may need to be removed with a procedure if it’s thought that it might not move with the administration of medications. 

During an endoscopy, the endoscope can either push the food further down into the stomach or pull it out through the mouth. Food that’s further down in the esophagus might be pushed down, while food that’s stuck further up may be pulled out.

Between 10% and 20% of cases of food impaction in the emergency room might need to be treated with endoscopy.

Endoscopy Alternatives 

There have been cases of food impaction that have been treated with cola. It has been used alone or with a drug called Creon (pancrelipase).

This might be done when endoscopy isn’t available or if medications or an endoscopy can’t be used. This includes areas of the world in which fewer resources are available for emergency care.

It’s not currently recommended for regular use because it may have more side effects than endoscopy, so it should only be used with the help of a healthcare professional. This method may also take several hours to days to help loosen the food and clear it.

Preventing Food Impaction

Food impaction can happen to anyone. It occurs more often during holidays, such as Thanksgiving. It’s recommended that people at higher risk avoid eating a big meal and drinking alcohol on holidays or during other celebrations.

Participating in speed-eating competitions may also increase the risk of food impaction. It’s recommended to avoid these events.

For those who have a condition that may affect the esophagus, such as GERD, eosinophilic esophagitis, or Schatzki ring, it’s important to talk about the risk of a food impaction with a healthcare provider. Treating any underlying conditions to keep inflammation under control and avoid scar tissue or strictures in the esophagus is key.

How Much to Chew

Chewing food well may help in avoiding food impaction. Digestion begins in the mouth. Enzymes in the saliva break down food while it’s being chewed. Chewing food well and taking time to eat slowly is important.

Some of the ways to avoid impacted food include:

  • Avoiding eating while lying down
  • Chewing food thoroughly
  • Having something to drink with meals
  • Eating smaller meals
  • Making sure that any dentures or other dental implants are well fitted
  • Taking smaller bites of food

People who have conditions that impact their mouth or esophagus should talk with a healthcare provider about their needs. For some people, changes to diet may be needed to avoid impaction. This includes eating softer foods that are more easily swallowed.

Summary

Food impaction in the esophagus is a common problem that can be an emergency. Meats and bones are common causes of food impaction incidents. If the food doesn’t pass on its own, medications may help. For some cases, removing food through an endoscopy procedure is needed.

A Word From Verywell

Having impacted food in the esophagus can be scary and uncomfortable. It can happen in older adults, but younger people may also have an impaction, especially around holidays and other events during which big meals are eaten. Taking care while eating, chewing well, and drinking liquids may all help in avoiding food getting stuck. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does the Heimlich maneuver help with food impaction?

    No. The Heimlich maneuver is used to dislodge something in the throat (pharynx, where both food and air pass to the esophagus and larynx respectively) that’s causing a person to choke.

    Choking is a medical emergency because something is lodged in the windpipe and a person cannot breathe.

    The Heimlich maneuver forces air up through the windpipe to force the object out. Food that’s caught in the esophagus can’t be dislodged this way.

  • What can you do to treat food impaction at home?

    Food impaction in which a person can breathe is not always an emergency. Forceful coughing, drinking water, or drinking some cola may help dislodge food.

    However, if the food is not moving, it’s preventing eating, there is pain, or there is difficulty breathing, it should be treated right away by a healthcare professional.

  • What are the symptoms of food impaction in babies?

    Babies may drool, gag, spit up or vomit if they have a food impaction. They may also refuse to eat and if they have pain or discomfort in their chest or neck, they may cry.

  • How serious is food impaction?

    Food impaction is not always serious. In some cases, it may resolve on its own. However, it can be an emergency if it’s causing a problem with breathing or if something like a sharp bone has become stuck.

    It’s important to seek care if there’s a persistent feeling of something caught in the throat and/or there are other symptoms of a food impaction.

  • What does food impaction feel like?

    A food impaction might feel like something is stuck in the throat. Sometimes a throat irritation can feel that way for a little while but a food impaction will feel more persistent and last longer than an hour or so.

    It is uncomfortable and may even be painful and will interfere with swallowing. People may also gag, vomit, or drool.

Was this page helpful?
10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gurala D, Polavarapu A, Philipose J, et al. Esophageal food impaction: A retrospective chart review. Gastroenterology Res. 2021;14:173-178. doi:10.14740/gr1387. 

  2. Kruger D. Assessing esophageal dysphagiaJAAPA. 2014;27(5):23-30. doi:10.1097/01.JAA.0000446227.85554.fb

  3. Khayyat YM. Pharmacological management of esophageal food bolus impaction. Emerg Med Int. 2013;2013:924015. doi:10.1155/2013/924015. 

  4. Stemboroski L, Brown R, Rizg K, Scolapio JS, Malespin M, de Melo SW. Medical management of esophageal food impaction refractory to endoscopic interventions. SAGE Open Med Case Rep. 2018;6:2050313X18774733. doi:10.1177/2050313X18774733. 

  5. Yao CC, Wu IT, Lu LS, et al. Endoscopic management of foreign bodies in the upper gastrointestinal tract of adults. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:658602. doi:10.1155/2015/658602. 

  6. Baerends EP, Boeije T, Van Capelle A, Mullaart-Jansen NE, Burg MD, Bredenoord AJ. Cola therapy for oesophageal food bolus impactions a case series. Afr J Emerg Med. 2019;9:41-44. doi:10.1016/j.afjem.2018.09.005. 

  7. Shafique M, Yaqub S, Lie ES, Dahl V, Olsbø F, Røkke O. New and safe treatment of food impacted in the esophagus: a single center experience of 100 consecutive cases. Gastroenterol Res Pract. 2013;2013:142703. doi:10.1155/2013/142703. 

  8. Hackett R, Brownson AR, Hill J, Raos Z. Management of adults with acute oesophageal soft food bolus and foreign body obstructions at two New Zealand district health boards. Clin Exp Gastroenterol. 2021;14:237-247. doi:10.2147/CEG.S300240. 

  9. Shuja A, Winston DM, Rahman AU, Mitty RD, Jaber BL, Keo T. Esophageal food impaction during cultural holidays and national athletic events. Gastroenterol Rep (Oxf). 2017;5:43-46. doi:10.1093/gastro/gow041. 

  10. Utah Health Hospitals and Clinics. Is there a proper way to chew food?

Additional Reading