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The Informed Parent

Gum-chewing Athletes

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Nov. 13, 2000

I wish to post a warning to all parents, coaches, teacher and caregivers about a simple hazard that can have dire consequences.

The practice is chewing gum while participating in a collision or contact sport. The piece of gum becomes a foreign body that can be aspirated (sucked into one’s windpipe), leading to obstruction of the breathing passage. The consequences of this are obvious. Sports such as football (tackle or flag), basketball and soccer are the ones of greatest concern. I realize most coaches and physical education teachers do not allow this practice, but for the few who forget, tragedy could occur.

Why am I so sensitized? Several years ago a teen-age patient was participating in his PE class when he began choking and fell to the ground. His classmates summoned the teacher, who tried to help him without success. The paramedics arrived, administered CPR, noted difficulty in getting air into his lungs and rushed him to a local emergency room.

When he arrived, the physician noted it was easier to ventilate his lungs and found a piece of gum in the back of his mouth. The chain of events now seemed clear. The unfortunate boy aspirated a piece of gum, causing airway obstruction, which led to lack of oxygen for blood to transport to vital organs. This, in turn, caused the cardio-respiratory arrest. The patient remained in a coma for many days, finally awakening with severe brain damage. Rehabilitation has helped, but he has not regained normal neurological status.

You can understand why I see the potential disaster all too clearly when I view young athletes running, falling and colliding on a field or court with a piece of gum in their mouth. I don’t think any coach would let his or her players participate with a piece of candy in their mouth. A piece of gum can be just as lethal.

General safety rules for athletes should include:

  • No gum, candy, food or any free foreign object in the mouth while participating.
  • If the sport dictates the use of a mouthpiece to protect the teeth, remind your players to keep it in the proper position. They should not put it in their mouth to chew on one side of the appliance.

Those of you who already protect your players by enforcing these measures should be commended and supported by the parents. Those of you who do not will benefit from this reminder because I know coaches always have the best interest of their young players at heart.

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