Fear of Choking

The fear of choking during (or after) dental treatment can be due to a number of different fears. Perhaps you’ve had an experience in the past where you felt you nearly choked, or you actually choked. This may have been at a dentist’s, or totally unrelated (such as a near-drowning experience). Other reasons can include problems with gagging (and/or a fear of being sick) or past abuse.

Here are some examples of choking fears and possible ways of dealing with them:

Choking or drowning on your own saliva:

You may feel that there is too much saliva and you’re unable to swallow during dental treatment. This can happen especially if the dental nurse or assistant is a bit inexperienced.

  • If you feel that your mouth is overflowing with saliva, remind your dental team about your concern and ask them when you lift up your left hand to slip the saliva ejector (“Mr Hoover”) in to clear the fluid.
  • Sometimes they can curve the plastic saliva ejector so it goes in at the corner of your mouth allowing you to hold it and move it about where needed.
  • No one likes the drowning feeling so feel free to let your dentist know!

“I have a fear of choking and gagging. I recently had a filling in a top molar, all the way in the back next to my wisdom tooth… I’ll tell you what helped me get through it. LOTS OF SUCTION. I held one, and the assistant held another one. This way everything stayed very dry in my mouth, because I can’t handle it when even water runs down my throat. Even that makes me gag at the dentist. Also if you feel a gag moment coming on, concentrate on breathing through your nose, instead of your mouth. That also helps a lot.”

Feeling unable to swallow with your mouth open:

This is quite a common complaint, and can be a symptom of anxiety during dental treatment. But also, we are not really used to swallowing with our mouths open. The following tip comes from Mike Gow, BDS:

“I teach my patients to practice swallowing with their mouths open in the run up to the next appointment. Try this yourself at home. Once you have done this for a few days, you can progress to holding a small amount of water in your mouth (and keeping it there), while allowing the swallowing reflex to take place. Obviously the trick is not to swallow any of the water – just to allow the natural reflex within the throat to take place, keeping the water in the mouth. (I hope that makes sense!) It is a very effective and useful thing to learn to do.”

Being worried about choking on dental instruments:

  • Ask your dentist if they can use a rubber dam. This is a thin sheet of latex which protects your throat from anything going into it.

Being worried about choking on gauze or cotton wool:

  • Be sure to mention your concern to your dentist if you are worried about having gauze in your mouth after tooth removal. From our message board:

“I thought there would be a big wad of cotton in my mouth. Not so. The first tooth was extracted by an oral surgeon, and he used a gauze pad that sat at the side of my mouth. It gave me no problem. I just had to change it every so often the first day. For the last three teeth, my dentist used an absorbable Gelfoam pad that fit right into the hole of the extraction. I never had to take it out nor change it. It filled the hole, and made the bleeding stop almost instantly. And I never knew it was there…hence no gagging possible.”

Choking due to local anesthetic:

Some people have mentioned that the local anesthetic makes them feel as if they’re unable to breathe and choke as a result. If this is the case for you, please have a read of our page Fear of Feeling Numb.

Choking and gagging:

The words “choking” and “gagging” are sometimes used interchangeably – again, we’ve got a separate page for dealing with a sensitive gag reflex: How to Deal With a Bad Gag Reflex.

Feeling of choking when the chair is too far back:

Some people feel as if they are going to choke if the chair is tipped too far back.

  • Ask your dentist to only put the chair back as far as necessary – see our fear of Loss of Control page for more details!

Choking due to past abuse:

The feeling of choking may also be associated with past abuse you may have experienced. There are tips for abuse survivors and their dentists on this page: Tips for Abuse Survivors and Their Dentists (warning: may trigger).

Related pages:

Fear of Feeling Numb

Fear of Gagging

Fear of Panic Attacks