Food stuck in your throat? Sipping cola won't help, study indicates

New research published in the Christmas issue of BMJ dispels the myth that cola can help clear a blocked esophagus. Photo by Kenny Holmes/Pixabay
1 of 2 | New research published in the Christmas issue of BMJ dispels the myth that cola can help clear a blocked esophagus. Photo by Kenny Holmes/Pixabay

NEW YORK, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- If a piece of turkey becomes lodged in your throat this holiday season, experts recommend against trying to free it with cola -- an old wives' tale given new life through advice found on seemingly credible websites.

New research published in the Christmas issue of BMJ -- the journal of the British Medical Association -- dispels the myth that this purported remedy can help clear a blocked esophagus.


Cola is often given to patients when food gets stuck in the esophagus, the study's lead author, Dr. Arjan Bredenoord, a professor of gastroenterology at Amsterdam University Medical Centers in the Netherlands, told UPI via email.

Physicians have recommended it and patients also have tried it. Yet, "the efficacy of this approach was unknown," Bredenoord said in explaining why he undertook the study.

Impacted food can cause a painful feeling of pressure, and sometimes people can no longer even swallow saliva. Usually, food gets stuck due to narrowing of the esophagus, which can stem from a tumor or a scar from previous inflammation.


"If food gets stuck in the esophagus, it is a frightening and painful sensation," Bredenoord said. "It isn't the same as choking, when food gets stuck in the trachea, but it certainly can be as frightening as choking."

Such a scenario can create a dangerous situation, so it's important that people seek appropriate treatment, he said.

Sometimes the food becomes loose on its own. When it doesn't, patients need to visit the emergency room, where doctors can perform an endoscopy. In this procedure, a camera is inserted through the mouth into the esophagus and the food is removed with a net or a forceps.

To test the belief that cola can be effective, Bredenoord and his team across five Dutch hospitals investigated the efficacy of the soft drink in dissolving food stuck in the esophagus.

Of the 51 patients who participated in the study and waiting for an endoscopy, half were given sips of cola in the emergency room, while the other half just waited. If the patients still couldn't swallow saliva, doctors performed an emergency endoscopy and removed the food.

The results indicated that cola did not help. In the patients who received cola, as well as those who waited without cola, there was an improvement in 61% of them. There were no side effects or complications from cola use.


Dr. Keith Chadwick, a clinical assistant professor of laryngology at Stony Brook Medicine in Stony Brook, N.Y., who was not involved in the study, told UPI in a telephone interview that the researchers successfully debunked an old wives' tale.

Giving cola to half of the study's participants while offering nothing to the other half was "a good way to see if the cola would make a difference," Chadwick said. "I would not recommend [using cola]."

If food becomes stuck in the esophagus and nothing is able to pass through, it's possible that the cola could come back up. That could injure the esophagus or the airway, Chadwick said.

Instead of cola, he suggests drinking a few sips of water. If that doesn't resolve the problem, a trip to the emergency room is in order.

Dr. Kelli DeLay, an assistant professor of gastroenterology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, Colo., told UPI via email that patients who experience food impaction tend to report a history of food becoming stuck or trouble swallowing.

Without proper intervention, prolonged impactions can increase the risk of complications, DeLay said.

"This study is helpful in guiding providers to avoid interventions that don't work and to ensure we don't delay necessary care -- urgent endoscopy for food disimpaction," she said.


The study is timely during the holiday season because of the kinds of food celebrants often eat.

"Foods that can become impacted in a narrowed esophagus are often dense, like meats," DeLay said. "These foods can be part of popular holiday meals, so it's not uncommon that during the holidays like Christmas, we have more patients present with food impactions."

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