Down the Wrong Pipe
So you are at an incredibly important interview for the job of your dreams and they ask you the question, “What do you think is your greatest weakness?” You decide to take a sip of water before telling them how you are a perfectionist who cares about work too much when, all of a sudden, your body betrays you. The water goes down the wrong pipe. You spend the next 5 minutes pantomiming that you are fine while trying your best to make your voice stop sounding like Gollum. But all the while pondering, “Why the heck does this even happen?”
The main problem here is plumbing. If you swallow food normally, it goes down your esophagus and the air you breathe goes to your lungs through your trachea. But more than 30 muscles go into swallowing a single bite of food, so there is room for glitches in the system. You can attribute the success or failure of your breathing and swallowing to a little thing called the epiglottis. The epiglottis was discovered by Greece’s favorite bad boy, scientist, and philosopher, Aristotle. Andres Vesalius, a 16th century anatomist and physician, later found the exact function of the epiglottis within the throat.
Normally when not eating, the epiglottis is chilling upward in the back of your throat. Air passes between your mouth and your trachea. When you want to swallow something, the epiglottis folds down to a flatter position so the food goes to your esophagus and stomach, not to your lungs. Think of it as one of those old-timey forks in the railroad tracks where your friends took their engagement photos in 2010. On one side is your trachea, to Lung Central Station, and the other is your esophagus, last stop, StomachTown. If the "switchperson" (you) isn’t paying attention, the train might end up on the wrong track. If that happens, your body will begin coughing and your gag reflex is triggered to keep food from entering your lungs. If anything that isn’t air makes it into your lungs, serious problems can occur including pneumonia and choking. In some (extremely rare) cases, seeds have sprouted within the lungs.
Other than in instances where there are physical problems, most of us just have to pay attention, be fully awake, and the problem should be solved. So take that, tiramisu with tons of cocoa powder on top! Your secrets have been revealed!