Shanice Clark, a Canadian-born 21-year-old student and basketball player at California University of Pennsylvania was pronounced dead on Sunday after being found unresponsive in her dorm around 3 a.m., the Associated Press reports. It appears her tragic death was an accident that may have been caused by a piece of chewing gum: Police said the preliminary medical report indicates that Clark inhaled gum while she was sleeping. Blood tests and the official cause of death are still pending an autopsy.
Can gum really kill you? "Gum—in fact, anything in your mouth—can be aspirated into your lungs down your windpipe at any time," says Melisa Lai Becker, MD, site chief of emergency medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance, a hospital group near Boston.
"If the gum isn’t tucked into a cheek or the person rolls over or snores, the gum could dislodge and fall back into the airway," says Dr. Lai Becker, who is not involved in the investigation.
A quick medical primer: Aspiration is the technical term for when something "goes down the wrong pipe." Foods and liquids are supposed to go down your esophagus to your stomach, but sometimes they can be inhaled into your airway instead. Your body's natural reaction is to cough it up, but if that doesn't work, the results could be potentially life-threatening.
"Inhaling anything other than air is deadly, particularly if asleep, because a person may not wake up in time to attempt to cough up the object," Dr. Lai Becker says. And if the object is inhaled deeply enough, being alert may not help either. "Even if a person wakes up and knows what’s going on, they may be unable to draw another breath to the point that they become unconscious due to lack of oxygen," she says.
This news doesn't mean you should stop chewing gum altogether, but you should definitely toss it in the trash before bedtime.
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