Airway protective mechanisms

Lung. 2014 Feb;192(1):27-31. doi: 10.1007/s00408-013-9540-y. Epub 2013 Dec 3.


Cough and swallow are highly coordinated reflex behaviors whose common purpose is to protect the airway. The pharynx is the common tube for air and food/liquid movement from the mouth into the thorax, has been largely overlooked, and is potentially seen as just a passive space. The thyropharyngeus muscle responds to cough inducing stimuli to prepare a transient holding area for material that has been removed from the subglottic airway. The cricopharyngeus muscle participates with the larynx to ensure regulation of pressure when a bolus/air is moving from the upper airway through to the thorax (i.e., inspiration or swallow) or the reverse (i.e., expiration reflex or vomiting). These vital mechanisms have not been evaluated in clinical conditions but could be impaired in many neurodegenerative diseases, leading to aspiration pneumonia. These newly described airway protective mechanisms need further study, especially in healthy and pathologic human populations.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cough / physiopathology*
  • Deglutition*
  • Humans
  • Laryngeal Nerves / physiopathology
  • Larynx / physiopathology
  • Pharynx / innervation*
  • Pneumonia, Aspiration / physiopathology
  • Pneumonia, Aspiration / prevention & control*
  • Reflex
  • Trachea / innervation