The gag reflex is often used in the assessment of swallowing, yet its absence does not predict aspiration in acute stroke. Disordered pharyngeal sensation has been found to be a sensitive predictor. The occurrence of gag reflex and pharyngeal sensation in healthy people is unknown. We studied these tests in 140 healthy subjects (half elderly and half young). Gag reflex was absent in 37% of subjects whereas pharyngeal sensation was absent in only 1. The results largely explain the low predictive value of gag reflex in the assessment of aspiration in acute stroke. Testing pharyngeal sensation would be more likely to be useful in these circumstances.