When you swallow, a piece of cartilage called the epiglottis closes off the trachea, or windpipe, to prevent food from obstructing your airway, according to About.com. The epiglottis flap normally rests in a slightly upright position above the larynx, or voice box. The epiglottis temporarily folds over the larynx opening as food or beverages enter the throat, protecting the trachea and lungs, MedlinePlus states.
Food or small objects can accidentally enter the windpipe, especially if a person laughs or inhales while eating, according to HowStuffWorks. In most cases, food completely bypasses the respiratory system and continues down the digestive tract by entering the esophagus.
A blocked airway may interfere with healthy breathing, causing symptoms ranging from wheezing and choking to loss of consciousness and permanent brain damage, says MedlinePlus. Parents are discouraged from giving babies and toddlers small toy pieces or foods because these objects can become choking hazards. Physicians are often able to remove objects stuck in the trachea using medical instruments, but in urgent situations, they may need to insert a breathing tube or perform a tracheostomy by making a surgical incision in the neck.
The epiglottis is not invulnerable. Prior to the widespread use of influenza vaccines, many young children suffered from bacterial infections in this area, according to About.com. A condition known as epiglottitis can cause uncomfortable inflammation, making it difficult to breathe and preventing the body from circulating oxygen.