According to Sanford Vieder, D.O., medical director of Lakes Urgent Care in West Bloomfield, Michigan, the most important thing to do first is not to panic. “If you’re able to cough, say any words, or speak in any way, you’re not completely occluded,” he tells SELF. Resist the urge to drink anything to dislodge the food—a common mistake, he says—since it can make matters worse.
Then, try to cough as hard as you can to get it out. “The cough reflex is still your best friend to try to expel whatever may be stuck or caught,” Vieder says.
If that didn’t work, it’s possible to do the Heimlich maneuver on yourself, Marc Leavey, M.D., an internist at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF. To do so, make a fist with one hand and place your thumb of that fist below your rib cage and above your belly button. Wrap your other hand around your fist and push against the pit of your stomach in a hard, quick motion. “You can also use the back of a chair or corner of a table, pushing your body into the fixed object quickly to try to dislodge the object,” Leavey says.
If you’re still having trouble, Vieder recommends calling 911. Even if you can’t speak, the operator will send help if you don’t hang up. “That way, if you can’t dislodge the food and you pass out, hopefully help will be on the way,” Vieder says.
Once the food is dislodged, experts recommend seeking medical attention to make sure that everything is out, there are no residual problems with your throat, and that you didn’t hurt yourself trying to dislodge the object.
Of course, the best way to save yourself from choking on food is to prevent in the first place, although Leavey acknowledges that choking is “more common than you’d think.” To lower the odds it will happen to you, he recommends focusing on your food when you’re eating (instead of wolfing down food on the go or texting at the same time) and—although it sounds obvious—taking normal-sized bites and chewing your food well before you try to swallow. He also says it’s a good idea to limit the amount of alcohol you have when you eat, since it can weaken the reflex that directs food the right way.
Vieder says that it’s a good idea to be especially alert when you eat pork products, since those are the most common foods people choke on (although he says chicken and beef are up there, too.) “Even though we don’t give it much thought, eating is serious business,” he says. “Eat more slowly and pay attention—it’s important.”