How to Prevent Gagging When Taking X-rays

Triggering a patient’s gag reflex is a daily work hazard in the dental industry. It’s the quickest way to making both the patient, and ourselves feel uncomfortable, but there are ways to avoid it altogether.

The pharyngeal reflex, more commonly known as the gag reflex, has a sensitivity level that varies from person to person, making it difficult to gauge how much pressure will trigger it. Dental x-rays, with their oddly shaped and sometimes painful bite wings, are one of the biggest culprits of triggering a patient’s gag reflex. 

A tendency to gag can be caused by psychological and/or physiological factors. Because the dentist’s office is far from the average person’s favorite place to visit, it can sometimes be a stressful experience for patients. Their nervousness can lead to a greater propensity to gag. 

In the case of quelling those psychological factors, here is some advice:

  • Speak to your patients beforehand and discuss the gag reflex openly and honestly. Ask them if they self-identify as someone with a sensitive gag reflex. They may even have some advice for what does or does not trigger it.
  • Build trust, and put your patients at ease before beginning a procedure to reduce their stress level.

Some physiological factors and remedies to consider:

  • Inability to breathe freely is one of the more common factors in triggering a gag reflex. Ensure that too much water or saliva does not build up at the back of the patient’s throat.
  • Encourage patients with closed nasal passages to let you know beforehand. You may try providing them with some Breathe Right strips to help them breathe easier.
  • Ask your patients, when possible, to always breathe through their noses.
  • If your patient is struggling with her gag reflex, ask them to lightly hum to maintain a positive flow of oxygen.
  • Some dental workers have used a little salt on the tongue to prevent gagging, but be sure to ask your patient for permission first.

Every patient is a little bit different, and with experience, you will learn how to make each patient experience as positive as possible. Try some of the strategies listed above, and decide what works for you and your patients. Be sure to take accurate notes of each patient on details such as their gag reflex sensitivity so you can be prepared for their next visit. Lastly, pay attention to your own habits and come up with some of your own tips to help you better handle the tricky pharyngeal reflex.

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A doctor who met us at a convention stated he was able to easily take x-rays on even a young child, despite the efforts of 4 prior dentists.  

A mother brought her young son into a dental practice for the first time. prep the hygienist took his x-rays using Flaps before cleaning his teeth. The mother was so surprised she was able to do it since they had been to 4 other dentists previously and none of them could get the X-ray done.

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