We all know it’s important to brush and floss our teeth consistently – but what if brushing makes you gag? The gag reflex is at best annoying and unhelpful, and at worst can prevent you from thoroughly and consistently brushing your teeth.

This struggle is more common than you think, and if you experience it, you are not alone. There are also some helpful things you can do to relieve this awful feeling and develop brushing habits that not only feel better, but prevent further dental complications down the road.


This feeling often begins in childhood

When kids are first learning how to brush their teeth, they have to learn fine motor skills to do a good job. This is why parents help with brushing, and dentists teach kids how to brush in circular motions, and gently. However, there are no two ways around it – kids often brush their teeth with hard, jerky motions, and poke their toothbrush right into the back of their mouth. This causes the nervous system to freak out a bit, increase sensitivity when brushing, and cause a gag reflex.


Although we learn fine motor skills as we get older, the nervous system can remember this gag reflex and turn it on anytime you brush your teeth. We also carry through the brushing habits we learn as children, which don’t help matters much.


Try these 6 tips to prevent your gag reflex:


1. Bring awareness to how you brush your teeth. Do you brush in sharp, jerky motions, or smooth, fluid motions? Do you roughly brush your gums or sometimes hit the back of your mouth? Do you use a lot of pressure when you brush, creating more of a scraping sound? A good way to tell if you brush with too much pressure is if your toothbrush bristles are flattened.

This awareness is a good first step, because it provides clues about where you could simply change your technique. A good rule of thumb is to brush gently, in circular motions. Don’t scrape and brush your gums, and when brushing your far back molars, do so with care. Your mouth should not feel irritated after you are finished brushing.

2. Invest in an electric toothbrush. This can be a gamechanger for people with a strong gag reflex. Because the electric toothbrush is designed to vibrate and do a lot of the subtle brushing motions on its own, your job is to gently glide it over all the surfaces of your teeth. This eliminates the back-and-forth brushing method you may be using with a traditional toothbrush. The sensation of vibrating may help with the gag reflex because it is soothing – or it may make it worse. If it makes it worse, ensure the vibration is on the lowest possible setting.

3. Sometimes the gag reflex is made worse by extra toothpaste. Using lots of toothpaste causes foaming at the mouth, and makes breathing in a little harder, which can provoke a gag reflex. You can probably cut down on the amount of toothpaste you’re using. You don’t need a lot! Just a pea-sized dollop can be enough, and then less foam and liquid is produced.

4. Take breaks. It’s ok if it takes longer to brush your teeth. Part of the process is teaching your nervous system that it doesn’t have anything to fear, and this may take time. Do a few seconds of brushing and then take a break and breathe. Spit out any toothpaste or fluid in your mouth and then continue once you feel better. Over time, you’ll be able to brush for longer periods of time before you begin to feel ill. Sipping on cold water can also help during these breaks.

5. Breathe slowly and gently through your nose. This is useful whether you’re in your bathroom or in the dentist’s chair. By focusing on your breath, your mind is less consumed with how your mouth feels.

6. Let your dentist know! Your dentist is on your team. If you struggle with a gag reflex, we have a lot of ways to help – from planning breaks, to offering cold water, to tilting you up or down to make things better, to even using special tools that are better for you. 


Don’t let your gag reflex stop you from getting the dental care you need.


We are here to help you feel comfortable, confident, and nausea-free when you care for your teeth. Book a consultation today. We can’t wait to meet you and your smile.