How can I stop gagging at the dentist’s or when I brush my teeth?

Unlike the happy customer to the right, quite a few people have a sensitive gag reflex.

What causes a hypersensitive gag reflex?

  1. Physiological factors: not being able to breathe through your nose easily, medications which cause nausea, dry mouth (to name but a few)
  2. Psychological factors: gagging can be an expression of anxiety or panic, and may be related to a feeling that a threat to breathing or swallowing is about to occur. Some people have had a past experience where they nearly drowned. A fear of severe gagging and being sick is also common in survivors of sexual abuse.
  3. No real reason: you may simply have an easily provoked gag reflex, with no contributing physiological or psychological factors.

Some people have such a bad gag reflex that it makes brushing their teeth almost impossible. You can find some tips here: Problems with Brushing Teeth.

Tips for Dentists and Patients: Handling the Gag Reflex

  1. Let your dentist know what procedures or situations have triggered gagging in the past and see if alternative ones can be used.
  2. Focus on breathing through your nose. Take deep, even breaths in and out through your nose. This can lessen the gag reflex and also makes you feel more relaxed (find out more about diaphragmatic breathing here).
  3. People on our forum have reported that using a nasal decongestant spray (e.g. Sudafed) before an appointment can be very helpful in keeping the nasal passageways open to promote breathing through the nose. Snore relief throat sprays and nasal strips have the same effect.
  4. Numbing agents: using topical or local anaesthetics to numb the throat, tongue, palate or all three can relieve the gag reflex:
    • Use a throat spray with numbing action to numb the soft palate (and everything else at the back of the mouth/throat). Sprays are easier to use than gels:

      “Simply spray the entire rear of the mouth, have the patient hold it for a few moments, and then swallow. Duration of numbness varies from patient to patient but easily lasts 15-30 minutes. Repeat as needed throughout the appointment and before you know it, the procedure is finished with everyone smiling!” (Eric G. Jackson DDS on – Ask a Dentist)

      Over-the-counter Ultra Chloraseptic Throat Spray (active ingredient: benzocaine) is easy to get hold of. Another option is Xylocaine (lidocaine) 10 mg Spray (Aspen), but supplies of this can sometimes be limited.

  5. Salt: “The salt trick works great for a lot of people. It’s definitely got some physiological basis because I’ve used it on a girl with severe brain damage and it worked, so not just a placebo effect. Sprinkle a little paper packet of it on the back of the tongue. If possible having the patient rinse round for a few minutes with some Normasol (0.9% saline) is even better.”
  6. Distraction:
    • “Lift one foot up in the air to have them concentrate on that.”
    • Listening to music: “I am too busy trying not to gag that I simply do not have the mental energy to ‘imagine myself someplace else’ or ‘think positive thoughts’. I bring in my own headphones with my own music and simply try to focus on that.”
    • For more distraction ideas, click here.
  7. Providing treatment in short increments can help.
  8. Using a rubber dam: “I have many anxious patients and patients with strong gag reflexes, who actually prefer to have treatment with rubber dam in place.”
  9. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is very effective in reducing the gag reflex. IV sedation is even more effective and almost always eliminates the gagging.
  10. Hypnosis can also help with the gag reflex. Make sure you choose a qualified hypnotherapist.
  11. Try to find a good time of day for you: “The mornings are when I gag the most when brushing my teeth. Now I try to schedule appointments for the afternoon.”


  1. Child size x-ray film holders: these are easier to tolerate than adult-sized ones.
  2. Humming: “Have the patient hum while the film is in their mouth – they can’t gag and hum at the same time. I tried it on a patient who hadn’t had x-rays for 2 years because she would gag on the bitewings. Worked great – we were both pleasantly surprised!”
  3. Numbing agents:
    • “For my patients that are have problems with gagging, I put a little topical lidocaine on a cotton tip applicator and put it on the palate and the back of the tongue and it works great, and patients like the taste, I use watermelon. This works really well for x-rays, so it should also help for impressions etc.”
    • “When placing films (bitewings), you could place some topical anaesthetic on the film to try and prevent the gagging. I have tried this and it works.”
  4. Holding the film yourself: “When needing films, it seems that when the patient holds the film, they gag less.”


  • Digital CAD/CAM/intraoral scanners bypass the need for traditional impressions. These are wand-type instruments which take a digital 3D scan instead of using traditional impression material. When choosing a clinician, check if they have this equipment if you want to avoid physical impressions. Common brands include CEREC, iTero and TRIOS. These have become faster, more accurate and more affordable in recent years, and as a result they are becoming more and more popular. If your dentist doesn’t have a scanner, they may know someone else in their area who can scan you.
  • Using a 20% benzocaine spray to numb the soft palate, pharynx, uvula, etc. can help a lot.
  • “As soon as the tray was in, my dentist had me lean forward.. and that was the first time I did it first time around! So the leaning forward does work well!”
  • “Nitrous oxide and spray topical usually work.”
  • “Trim a quadrant tray to be as minimal as possible, especially on the lingual. Make sure it’s closed tray impression in case quick removal is needed.”
  • Sitting up rather than lying down can help with the gag reflex. “In some situations, unconventional measures may be required. I once had to take an impression with the patient standing up to help defeat the gag reflex.”
  • Use a super-fast setting impression material, or make the mold a bit thicker so that it hardens quicker.
  • Ask your dentist if a smaller, child-sized impression tray can be used.
  • “Desensitization can also work well. Give patients various dental tools such as a mouth mirror and small impression trays. They can then take these home and introduce these instruments into their mouths themselves. They should keep a diary of how long they feel comfortable by timing it. Doing this a few times in a row twice a day, you will become less sensitive to the gag reflex. As a dentist, you can ask the person to practice until, for example, they feel comfortable sitting with the tray in place for 5 minutes.”
  • “By explaining your fear of impressions, we can warm up the impression so that it sets much more quickly.”

Unlearning the Gag Reflex (Desensitisation):

  1. Relax and breathe through your nose if physically possible.
  2. Using a small, very soft toothbrush, brush your tongue to right where the area that triggers your gag reflex begins (if you gag, you’ve gone too far). Spend about 15 seconds brushing that area, and then call it a night.
  3. Repeat the process over the next few days, at least once a day, in the exact same spot. Stop just short of the area where the gag reflex kicks in.
  4. When you are comfortable with this, move the brush slightly further back. Repeat the process as you did in the first spot.
  5. Continue moving the brush farther back. Each time you move the toothbrush back, your gag reflex has been desensitized in the previous spot. Keep moving it farther and farther back over the course of several weeks.
  6. Be persistent. The whole process may take a week to a month to complete.

“I have an upper denture and was not able to put it in my mouth because it made me gag. I couldn’t even tolerate it for 10 seconds. I googled gag reflex issues, and discovered a really logical approach which I used with great success. The article I read said to brush your tongue sideways, back as far as you could without having a major gag and do so twice a day for 15 seconds. I did that for one full week, before trying to put the denture in again. It worked like a charm.” (from our message board)

TIP: It is a good idea to practice while you are relaxing, for example whilst watching TV.

The same exercise can be used to desensitise your gag reflex in the palate area. Follow the same steps as above, but instead of brushing your tongue, gently massage your palate just behind your upper front teeth for a few minutes. When you are comfortable with this, move the brush slightly further backwards over your palate and carry on massaging. Practice this exercise until you’re comfortable massaging the front half of your palate.

Communication and psychological factors:

  • “I apparently picked up the notion that gagging is a very effective way to get the dentist to stop work when I started to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t really know how to communicate with him without talking, so I just gagged.”
  • “Talking with the dentist. This was probably the biggest thing that helped me. Establishing communication and letting him know my fears was a big step. For example, my dentist now places tools in my mouth at different angles than he did in the past. He lets his assistant know not to rest the sucking thing against my cheek. He also does not put so many things in my mouth at one time.”
  • “For many people, there is a sense of loss of control in a dental chair during treatment and the tendency to gag is one representation of this. If you have this sense at all, then your dentist must reassure you that he or she will stop immediately if you want them to, whether it be to rinse, or just to catch your breath. If you have a trusting relationship, then your sense of control should increase.”
  • “I find the most important factor in dealing with gagging problems is a calm manner – if you get stressed by not being able to take an impression, your patient is only going to gag more. Acknowledge the problem and show that you are not phased by it.”
  • “Another technique is to have the patient relax. Easier said than done…it IS a dental appointment right! The gag reflex cannot only be triggered by physiology, but psychology as well, and for some patients the latter plays the dominant role! Perhaps the patient had a traumatic dental experience in the past or perhaps they have an unspoken fear of losing control. It is extremely important to me to have the patient in control of the appointment. For those of you who I’ve worked on, perhaps you remember me mentioning at the appointment to “raise your left hand if you need something.” It doesn’t matter to me why a patient raises their left hand because all reasons are valid! From needing a bathroom break to an overabundance of water in their mouth to sensing a cough or sneeze coming on, each of these pauses in the action helps me provide a more pleasant dental appointment. I strongly rely on patient feedback to inform me about how to deliver better care. Additional anti-anxiety methods are also quite effective. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas), working with the room lights off, dark sunglasses, an IPod with soothing music, and even hypnosis are all good techniques that calm a patient and thereby diminish the likelihood of a gag reflex during the appointment.” (source: Eric G. Jackson DDS on – Ask a Dentist)


  • the gag reflex can be triggered by a denture that extends too far into the palate – oftentimes it’s possible to trim it enough to make it comfortable
  • desensitization can work well: “I always had a hypersensitive gag reflex too, and just couldn’t handle impression trays unless I was sedated, but for some odd reason, never thought that dentures would deliver a similar result. When I got my denture (upper), I just couldn’t keep it in for more than a second or two, no matter how hard I tried. My dentist suggested trying to put it in while my mind was very busy doing something else, to take my mind off the issue, but that didn’t work either. I decided to google solutions to gag issues, and one I came across sounded very logical, so I tried it. I brushed my tongue crosswise, as far back as the gag would tolerate for 15 seconds, twice a day, and kept trying to do that further and further each day. I didn’t try the denture in again for a full week of tongue brushing, and unbelievably, I put the denture in easily after that and haven’t gagged with it since! It’s certainly an easy solution, because I only had to tolerate brushing the tongue for 15 seconds at a time (and of course I felt really gaggy while doing that), and I believe that it is a very logical way of desensitizing one’s gag reflex.”
  • sheer wanting will and persistence can help
  • hypnosis can be helpful
  • if finances allow, implant-retained dentures or bridges may be an option
  • you can find more info on getting used to dentures here: FAQ: Dentures

More info on gagging

A fear of gagging and throwing up is a common feature in emetophobia (the fear of vomiting). Emetophobia, coupled with a bad gag reflex, is not much fun! Try the tips above, and read more about emetophobia here: Emetophobia: The Fear of Vomiting.

Related Pages

Fear of Choking
Problems with Brushing Teeth
Information for Abuse Survivors and Their Dentists

Further Reading:

Impression techniques and desensitisation techniques for dentures (British Dental Journal, November 2018)
Combating the hypersensitive gag reflex (PDF) – by Mike Gow and Jamie Newlands
Ask a Dentist: “I have a terrible gag reflex. Is there anything to make visits easier?”
Tips for the Management of the gagging patient (PDF) (Dental Fears Research Clinic, Washington)

The information on this page has been provided by the Dental Fear Central Web Team. Last reviewed on January 3, 2019. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.