The main purpose of a gag reflex is to contract the throat to prevent a person from choking. A gag reflex is a natural response. However, in some people, the gag reflex may be oversensitive.

In these cases, it may cause problems when a person is brushing their teeth, visiting the dentist, or engaging in oral sex with someone with a penis.

In this article, we explore the gag reflex in more detail, including techniques that people can use to desensitize it.

A person, perhaps with a sensitve gag reflex, holding their throat.Share on Pinterest
The gag reflex is a natural reaction to prevent a person from choking or eating something unpleasant.

A gag reflex, or pharyngeal reflex, is a normal bodily response. It prevents swallowing by contracting the pharynx. The pharynx is the passageway from the mouth and nose into the esophagus (food pipe), the tube that connects the throat to the stomach.

In some cases, a person may gag extremely hard. When this occurs, it can cause stomach spasms, leading to a feeling of nausea or resulting in a person vomiting.

Two types of stimuli can trigger a gag reflex: somatogenic and psychogenic.


A somatogenic stimulus is one that physically makes direct contact with a trigger point. In relation to oral trigger points, this may be a large piece of food or a foreign object.

The activation of a trigger point causes nerve signals to pass to the brain, which then signals the pharynx to contract.

In this instance, the gag reflex is an attempt to prevent a person from choking or swallowing something potentially dangerous.

Although trigger points in the mouth may vary, a gag reflex will typically occur when something stimulates the base of the tongue, the uvula, or the tonsil area.

Some people may gag from a very gentle touch on a trigger point, while others may be able to tolerate a more intense sensation before gagging.


A psychogenic stimulus is a mental trigger that causes a person to gag. Generally, a psychogenic stimulus is a response to disgust. Therefore, a person may gag when experiencing an unpleasant thought.

Somatogenic and psychogenic stimuli combined

Physical and mental stimuli can be separate events or happen at the same time. A person may, therefore, also gag due to certain sights, sounds, and smells.

This combination of psychogenic and somatogenic stimuli can explain why some people may gag only under certain circumstances.

For example, a person may not gag when engaging in their own oral hygiene but might gag when a dentist performs it due to multiple triggers being present at the dentist’s office.

These may include anxiety about the procedure, the dentist touching physical trigger points, the taste of the dentist’s gloves, and the sound of dental tools.

As the main reason why a gag reflex occurs is to prevent a person from choking, it is not advisable to try stopping it. It may also take years of physical and mental retraining to stop a gag reflex.

However, it is possible that some people have no gag reflex, have a higher threshold to physical trigger points, or are yet to face a sensation extreme enough to cause them to gag.

Instead of trying to stop their body’s natural response, a person with a sensitive gag reflex may consider using techniques to desensitize or pause it when necessary. Some of these techniques include:


A 2015 study suggests that acupuncture may help alleviate a sensitive gag reflex in a short time.


Acupressure involves putting pressure on certain parts of the body to encourage it to self-heal and self-regulate. An older study suggests that applying pressure to the palm may change a person’s trigger point.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that if a person closes their left hand over their left thumb and applies gentle pressure, it may stop them from gagging.


A person may desensitize their gag reflex by accustoming the trigger point in their mouth to touch.

One technique that a person can try is taking their toothbrush and slowly moving it toward the back of their tongue until they feel close to gagging. They can then brush that area for 15–30 seconds.

A person should attempt to do this process twice a day until they no longer feel the urge to gag from brushing in that area.

At this point, they can move their toothbrush back slightly further and repeat the process.

Local anesthetic

A sensitive gag reflex at the dentist can make the experience difficult for both the person and the dentist. A 2016 study looking at people getting molds of their teeth notes that applying local anesthetic to the impression material can reduce a person’s gag reflex.

Distraction techniques

A 2017 study looking at the gag reflex in children suggests that distracting them with a counting game may reduce their gag reflex response.

Relaxation techniques

A person may consider using relaxation techniques to reduce their risk of gagging. For instance, they can try meditative behaviors, such as controlled breathing and mindful thinking.

Gagging is the body’s natural reaction to prevent a person from choking or consuming something unpleasant.

A person may gag due to a physical stimulus, such as an object touching a sensitive point in the mouth. Alternatively, they may gag due to a mental stimulus, such as a grotesque thought. In some cases, physical and mental stimuli may occur simultaneously.

A person with a sensitive gag reflex may wish to consider techniques such as acupuncture, relaxation, or gradually desensitizing their gag reflex by brushing the back of their tongue with a toothbrush.