Symptoms of Gagging

Gagging is caused by the gag reflex, or pharyngeal reflex.

Usually, the reflex is activated when something touches the base of the tongue or tonsil area, but it can also be triggered by your other senses, including taste, smell, sight, and sound. That will cause you to experience symptoms of gagging that include muscle convulsions and noises. 

Continue reading to learn more about the symptoms of gagging, and when they might be cause for concern. Why gagging is so common in babies, and what you should do if your infant is gagging also are covered.

Baby With a Spoon in His Mouth

Sviatlana Yankouskaya / Getty Images

Frequent Symptoms 

The main symptom of gagging is the contraction of the pharyngeal muscles. When these muscles contract, the soft palate, located in the back of the roof of the mouth, also raises up. These muscle movements are meant to move food or anything else in the mouth toward the front of the mouth in order to avoid choking. 

Additional symptoms of gagging include:

  • Coughing
  • Spitting up food or vomiting
  • Abdominal contractions
  • Retching noises

Gagging and choking are not the same thing. Gagging is an involuntary movement meant to prevent choking. The person gagging can still breathe. Choking is when the airway is blocked or partially blocked. If a person is unable to breath, call 911 immediately. 

Symptoms of Gagging in Babies

Infants have a more sensitive gag reflex than older children and adults. This makes it common for them to gag when eating new foods. Usually, this is not a cause for concern but rather a normal part of learning how to eat solid foods.

Symptoms of gagging in babies include:

  • Watering eyes
  • Making gagging noises
  • Spitting out food
  • Looks of confusion or distress

If your baby gags, don’t panic. Remember, it’s a natural reaction when learning to eat. However, if your baby isn’t making noise or the baby's skin changes color, they may be choking. Perform the infant Heimlich maneuver and call 911 if that happens. 

Rare Symptoms

The gag reflex is controlled in the brain stem. The brain stem also includes the vagus nerve and medulla oblongata. These areas of the brain also control cardiac activity, vomiting, and the salivary glands. So, although rare, you may experience additional symptoms when you gag, including:

  • Tears flowing
  • Increased salivation, which may lead to drooling
  • Sweating
  • Fainting 
  • Panic attack

Complications

Gagging is usually harmless. For infants, it’s entirely normal. But for adults it can be physically uncomfortable and embarrassing. A very sensitive gag reflex can interfere with your ability to try new foods or get dental exams. In extreme cases, this could lead to nutritional deficiencies, feeding problems, or dental health concerns. 

About 10% to 15% of people have a hypersensitive gag reflex. These people might gag in various circumstances, including when they have postnasal drip or when experiencing anxiety. They’re more likely to gag at the dentist, too.

When to Seek Medical Care

Gagging is normal and common, especially in infants. However, a child or adult that frequently gags beyond infancy might have an underlying health condition including:

Talk to your healthcare provider if:

  • Your child is gagging frequently after infancy.
  • Gagging is triggered by anxiety, postnasal drip, or other unusual causes.
  • Gagging or worry about gagging begins to interfere with your normal routines or dental care. 

Summary

Gagging is a reflex that causes the throat and palate to spasm. This is meant to cause objects in the mouth to move toward the front to prevent choking. Gagging is common among babies who are learning to eat and less common among older kids and adults. However, if you gag frequently, you should talk to your healthcare provider. 

A Word From Verywell

Watching your baby gag can be scary. But it’s entirely normal and expected. Continue to offer them solid food. Don’t hesitate to talk to your healthcare provider if you or your child have severe gagging. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is gagging the same as choking?

    No, gagging is a reflex meant to prevent choking. The main symptom of gagging is a throat spasm. Choking is when food or an object gets caught in the through, partially or fully blocking the airway. 

  • What do I do if my baby is gagging?

    Gagging is a normal and expected part of eating for infants. Stay calm if your baby gags. But if they begin choking, meaning they can’t breath, call 911. 

  • Why does my baby gag so much?

    Infants have a more sensitive gag reflex. It’s meant to protect them as they learn to eat solid foods. As they transition to more solid foods, their gag reflex becomes less sensitive, and they’ll stop gagging as much. 

3 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. Sivakumar S, Prabhu A. Physiology, gag reflex. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

  2. Anand MV, et al. Acupuncture — An effective tool in the management of gag reflex. doi:10.4103/0975-7406.163601

  3. Department of Health. Know the difference between choking and gagging on food. Tasmanian Government.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.