Can You Swallow Your Tongue From a Seizure or Sleep Apnea?

Can You Swallow Your Tongue From a Seizure or Sleep Apnea?
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Can You Swallow Your Tongue From a Seizure or Sleep Apnea?Clinical Content Reviewed by Licensed DDS
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Table of Contents

  1. Swallowing Your Tongue Myths
  2. First Aid During a Seizure
  3. Sleep Apnea Tongue Choking
  4. References

Your tongue is a muscle, and it is not physically possible to actually swallow it. During a seizure, it is possible to bite the tongue. It can sound like someone is choking, but this is not due to the tongue being down the throat.

It is a common myth that bystanders should put something in someone’s mouth as they are having a seizure to prevent them from swallowing their tongue. Do not do this!

When witnessing a seizure, put someone in the rescue position. While you can take precautions to ensure they are not going to hurt themselves, rest assured that they are not going to swallow their tongue.

However, it is possible to choke on the tongue while unconscious or due to sleep apnea, as the tongue can fall back into the back of the mouth and block the airway. Make sure the person is not laying on their back to help prevent this.

Common Myths Around Swallowing Your Tongue

An old wives’ tale says that you can swallow your tongue during a seizure, but this is not actually the case. Outdated information tells you to place a spoon or another object into someone’s mouth when they are having a seizure to prevent them from swallowing their tongue. Again, this is a physically impossible thing to do.

Your tongue is a muscle, and it is securely connected to the back of your mouth. The tissue called the frenulum linguae connects your tongue solidly to the bottom of your mouth and prevents you from being able to swallow it. The tongue can fall into the back of the mouth when you are unconscious or suffer from sleep apnea, which can make it difficult to breathe properly.

It’s critical not to to put anything in a person’s mouth during a seizure to avoid harming them or making them choke on the item.

First Aid for Someone During a Seizure

While you should not put anything in someone’s mouth when they are having a seizure, there are several things you can do to keep them safe until the seizure passes. A grand mal (tonic-clonic) seizure typically lasts one to three minutes and has two parts.

During the tonic activity, a person loses consciousness and can fall down. They can appear to struggle to breathe, as the air is forced from their lungs and stiff chest muscles can cause impaired breathing. They can foam at the mouth and potentially bite their tongue.

The clonic activity phase can cause jerking motions. The seizure should pass within one to three minutes.

During a seizure, you can help to protect a person by following these tips:

  • Help them to the floor gently.
  • Clear the nearby area of furniture and objects.
  • Do not try to hold them still.
  • Move them into the recovery position on their side carefully.
  • Place something soft under their head to minimize head injury.
  • Time the seizure.

After the seizure is over, calm and reassure the person. Then, contact their doctor.

Choking on Your Tongue With Sleep Apnea

While you cannot actually swallow your tongue, it can fall to the back of your mouth and block your airway if you have obstructive sleep apnea. This is when air is physically blocked from getting to your lungs while you sleep.

It generally happens when a person is sleeping on their back. As the muscles relax, the tongue can fall back to the rear of your mouth.

There are multiple methods for treating obstructive sleep apnea, ranging from surgical interventions and oral appliances to positive airway pressure (PAP) devices. A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine can be worn as a mask at night while sleeping. This will deliver constant positive airway pressure to stabilize the upper airway. It is considered the gold standard of care.

Talk to your doctor about methods for treating obstructive sleep apnea to ensure that you do not choke on your tongue.

References

The Claim: During a Seizure, You Can Swallow Your Tongue. (April 2008). The New York Times. Date Fetched: August 2, 2021.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Details. (June 2004). Apneos. Date Fetched: August 2, 2021.

Recognizing and Refuting the Myth of Tongue Swallowing During a Seizure. (October 2020). Seizure: The European Journal of Epilepsy. Date Fetched: August 2, 2021.

Tonic-Clonic (Grand Mal) Seizures. (2021). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Date Fetched: August 2, 2021.

Treatment Options for Obstructive Sleep Apnea. (February 2017). Neurology Clinical Practice. Date Fetched: August 2, 2021.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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