What is Aerophagia?

Meaning of Aerophagia

Aerophagia is the swallowing of air meaning that air enters the gastrointestinal tract (gut) rather than the lungs. The air may get trapped in the esophagus and/or stomach temporarily and may be passed with an eructation (belch or burp). Aerophagia is not a serious condition but may lead to gas bloating, indigestion and abdominal discomfort. The most noticeable symptom though is excessive belching.

Breathing through the mouth is one route for gases to travel between the lungs and the environment. Normally this does not pose a problem as the opening of the epiglottis and the negative pressure created within the lungs during inspiration essentially “sucks” the air into the lungs. Similarly when exhaling the air is forced out of the lung and airways and quickly exit via the nose or mouth. The esophagus in these instances is usually collapsed so air will not easily enter it.

However, it is when air is moving and swallowing occurs or when there is insufficient food or liquid in the mouth at the times of swallowing that air is actually pushed into the esophagus. In other words, aerophagia (air swallowing) almost never occurs without actual swallowing. Since swallowing is a voluntary act (the first part), air swallowing can therefore be controlled and prevented when a person is conscious of their actions.

Causes of Aerophagia

Common causes of aerophagia (air swallowing) include :

  • Nasal congestion which leads to mouth breathing.
  • Eating or drinking too fast.
  • Talking too fast or for long periods of time.
  • Strenuous physical activity.
  • Chewing gum.
  • Cigarette smoking.
  • Hysteria or anxiety leading to hyperventilation.
  • Incorrectly fitting dentures.

There are other sources of gas in the gut which may not have entered via the mouth with the swallowing of the air. This should not be confused with aerophagia as it specifically refers to the act of swallowing air. Gas may enter the gut through carbonated beverages, bacterial action in the bowels and even some gas passes out of the bloodstream and into the gut. These gases may only enter or arise lower down the gut and is passed out with flatus.

Symptoms of Aerophagia

Every person swallows some air when eating and drinking. However, these quantities of air are very small, quickly pass out with a belch and rarely cause any symptoms in such small quantities. Excessive air swallowing will present with :

  • Excessive belching
  • Indigestion (dyspepsia)
  • Bloating (sensation of fullness)
  • Excessive flatulence (uncommon)
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Louder or more active bowel sounds

Treatment of Aerophagia

Aerophagia is not a serious medical disease. However, it should be avoided as it can cause discomfort. Treatment measures should be directed at the underlying cause where possible. Some dietary and lifestyle measures includes :

  • Eating small bites of food
  • Chewing slowly and swallowing completely before filling the mouth again
  • People who talk for a living should take note of whether they are speaking to fast or breathing through their mouth only during talking.
  • Carbonated drinks worsens the problem of gas in the gut.
  • Gum should not be chewed for long periods of time or repeatedly.