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Your tongue is a muscle anchored to the inside of your mouth. A strong band of tissue, called the lingual frenulum, connects your tongue to the bottom of your mouth.
The tongue helps you speak, eat, drink, and defend your mouth from germs. Contrary to popular belief, it’s physically impossible to swallow your tongue.1
According to Dr. Khushbu Aggarwal, one of NewMouth’s in-house dentists, the terms “swallowing the tongue” and “tongue choking” may refer to the relaxation of the tongue’s muscles, rather than actually swallowing it.
This is true even during seizures or periods of unconsciousness. However, these events can involve serious risks like oral injuries and choking, so knowing basic first aid is critical.
The tongue is a muscle, which means it gets floppy when relaxed. If your mouth muscles relax too much, they can slide back toward the airway between your lungs and throat. This prevents enough oxygen from reaching your brain.
While the tongue can’t be swallowed, it can interfere with breathing. This is especially true with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
When the tongue and other oral muscles relax during sleep, they can slide back toward the throat and partially or completely block the airway.
This is why people with sleep apnea snore loudly and make choking sounds in their sleep. They are not swallowing their tongue; they are struggling to breathe. And when the brain senses this lack of oxygen, it causes them to wake up.
See your doctor or qualified healthcare provider for treatment if you or a loved one has sleep apnea.
The tongue falling back into the throat mostly affects people with obstructive sleep apnea. However, people who have become unconscious due to other health conditions, like seizures, are also at risk.
Peer-reviewed studies show that seizures increase a person’s risk of oral injuries. In a 2017 survey, 52.4% of people with epilepsy reported oral trauma during seizures.2
Understanding what to do during and after a seizure can help you or someone you know prevent a serious injury.
Seizures affect about 1 in 10 people at some point in their lives.3 Because they’re so common, it’s likely you may need to help someone during or after a seizure. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, knowing basic seizure first aid can save a life.
Before offering first aid, you need to know how to recognize a seizure. There are many types of seizures, all of which are caused by electrical disturbances in the brain.
Common signs of a seizure include:
Tonic-clonic seizures, previously known as grand mal seizures, are the most extreme type. A tonic-clonic seizure may cause a person to suddenly fall unconscious and experience convulsions, during which they might bite their tongue.
It’s critical to keep the person having a seizure safe and comfortable. To offer first aid during a seizure:
If the person is unconscious and lying down, you can gently turn them on their side. This is called the recovery position. It helps them breathe more easily by keeping their airways open.
Some seizures require more than simple first aid. Call 911 if:
After a seizure, provide compassion and support. The person who experienced the seizure may feel embarrassed or confused about what just happened. Keep this in mind as you reassure them that they’re safe.
When they’re alert and able to communicate, explain what happened in simple terms. Then, contact their healthcare provider.
There are certain things you should never do while administering first aid during a seizure. Do not:
Remember, tongue swallowing is physically impossible, so focus on providing or getting proper medical care for the person.
If someone is unconscious due to a seizure, putting them in the recovery position can keep their airway clear.
Carefully roll their body onto their side. Keep their head aligned with their neck if you suspect a spinal injury. Having the head and mouth turned to the side prevents the tongue from blocking the airway and keeps them from choking on fluids like saliva.
Many myths about swallowing the tongue have to do with seizures. Some people believe that putting a spoon or other object into a person’s mouth during a seizure prevents them from choking on their tongue. This is untrue and dangerous.
To avoid harming someone, don’t put anything, including your fingers, inside their mouth if they’re having a seizure.They may choke on the object or break their teeth or jaw.
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