I choked on salad dressing and almost died

Can you choke to death on balsamic and olive oil salad dressing? Here’s the story of how I almost found out.

Last Sunday I did the single-guy thing of eating dinner while watching television. Someday I will have a wife and children and I will eat with them. I look forward to it. Until that day, I dine with the DVR versions of Mad Men, The Office and Friday Night Lights. It beats eating alone in the kitchen, fending off thoughts like, “This is probably how serial killers eat” and “If this dinner was a movie scene it would be scored with the sad Rocky-alone-in-his-dingy-apartment theme from Rocky I.”

So I was watching DIRECTV’s season finale of Friday Night Lights while enjoying baked chicken and a small salad with a balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing when the unthinkable happened. I later Googled it and could not find a similar occurrence. As far as I know, I am the only person who has experienced this.

I took one last bite of salad, a bite laden with the soupy remnants of vinegar and oil at the bottom of the bowl, walked to the kitchen, swallowed and could not breathe. The oil and vinegar formed a hot, liquid obstruction in my windpipe. It was like a vapor-lock. As hard as I tried, I could not breathe in or out. I was choking on salad dressing.

Quickly, I ran through my options.

1. I could give myself the Heimlich against a kitchen chair

2. I could go to my roommate Mike for help

I do not remember running from the kitchen to Mike’s recording studio, which is 50 feet away. I just remember making the decision to run and appearing there.

Poor, unsuspecting Mike, with his back to the door, mixing the podcast we had just recorded, was jolted from his work by the desperate gasps of a grown man being physically overpowered by less than a quarter of an ounce of salad dressing.

(Above: My dance partner in the tango of death. Photo by Lamees.(L.Y.S)/Flickr)

Mike said, “What is it?” I pointed at my throat. He asked, “Are you chocking?” I nodded and turned around, presenting myself, as it were, for the Heimlich maneuver.

I often mock Mike in the podcast and in real life about his hypochondria and his general philosophy that most things on earth, from bacteria to spiders to airplanes, exist for the sole purpose of killing him. Never had I been so thankful to be in the presence of someone so obsessed with health.

After four or five pumps, Mike found the sweet spot, and I threw up vinegar and oil into my mouth.

I vividly remember, as I was receiving the Heimlich and still could not breathe, having the following thought. And I swear to God this is true. “I hope I don’t throw up and mess up Mike’s rug.” Only God knows the last time that rug was cleaned – any soap that has ever touched it probably fell there by mistake – but I could not stand the thought of sullying the floor, provided that I was given the opportunity to live.

This is how I know I truly am descended from a people who wrap their furniture in plastic.

My legs shaking, I thanked Mike. We spent about 15 minutes describing what the experience was like from our perspectives. (For a hilarious version of this, listen to this week’s podcast.) Then and there I swore off balsamic vinegar forever, walked to the kitchen, threw the bottle in the recycling bag and began wondering how I would ever repay my roommate.

I am not sure you ever can pay someone back for something like that. So until the day comes when I can afford to install a Grey Goose drinking fountain in the house, the following will have to suffice.

Thank you, Mike, for saving my life.


Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • Megan

    God bless those roommates! I’m sorry Mike wasn’t able to give you mouth-to-mouth, but thankful you are ok.

  • marc

    I’ll see what I can do about the goose fountain, until then I would stick to good ole. Thousand Island.

  • Joe Donatelli

    Marc- Mike would love a Thousand Island Fountain. Or a Ranch Fountain.

    Megan – You would like that, wouldn’t you?

  • Amy

    I just googled this because I swear the same thing happened to me. But I was alone. I was eating a salad and it came with several dressings, I put a spoon in one, lots of oil and drank it, all of a sudden I could NOT breathe and no one was here. I was gasping for breath and grabbed my phone to call 911 but after a few huge gasps a little airway opened up but I still was hardly getting any air. I don’t know how long it lasted but seemed an eternity. My heart was racing, I was shaking all over, and my head hurt for a while. One of the scariest things to happen to me!!!

  • That’s what happened to me, Amy. Avoid that dressing forever. I tried balsamic again years later and guess what? The same thing almost happened, except I coughed it out on my own. So I’m off it for good. For some reason, it makes me choke.

  • disqus_09sYM0lJbt

    I am writing this several years after you had your terrible experience Joe, but I am so grateful to have found this site because this evening at a restaurant I had the same frightening experience. I have had balsamic vinegar and olive oil for almost my entire life so this was so extremely shocking to me. The waiter poured this fantastically rich virgin olive oil, green tint, and then some very rich balsamic vinegar to dip some fresh home made bread into as a pre meal appetizer…I had several bites and then out of no where as I was chewing on the bread the oil vinegar mixer trickled down my throat and it was kind of like when water goes down the wrong pipe, and you tell who ever is there, yes I’m choking, but I’ll be OK in a minute, it’s only water…but this time, my brain at first was thinking, yes I’m choking and it’s liquid so I should be OK in a minute and then no air and total blockage and is this really happening!! The person with me at the table ran around and started to give me the Heimlich but I started to work it out of my thought on my own, and after a few more seconds which felt like forever, I started to breathe again. It was truly terrifying, and still can’t believe this was even possible. My uncle once told me a similar thing happened to him when he drank milk while swallowing aspirin, and the pill expanded in his thought. So did the mixture of oil and vinegar expand somehow? Needless to say, one of my favorite foods will never be the same…

  • Lisa

    Oh my gosh! This just happened to me last night! Same thing–eating bread with a wonderful balsamic and olive oil and I swallowed and couldn’t feet any air! My husband and kids were staring at me asking if I was ok and I’m thinking “ok, this was oil. How is my throat blocked?” It took at least a minute of wheezing through the smallest of space in my throat and I finally was able to cough and breathe better. It was very scary! No more of that mixture for me!

  • Lisa

    Oh my, this happened to me last night. I had made some caramelised onions in balsamic vinegar and olive oil and when I tasted the tiniest amount of the liquid it was like the vapor of the vinegar went down my wind pipe and blocked it. The first few breathes I tried to take was like I was choking and then a tiny amount of air could get in and I was making hideous desperate breathing in noises to try to get air in until my airway opened to allow me to breathe normally. It didn’t seem logical to me that I was choking on balsamic vinegar and only the smallest amount at that. It was truly very scary, my legs were shaking for a while afterwards.

  • I am glad you are OK, Lisa. Yes, it’s scary.

  • Fady Jaber

    Happened to me tonight. I put WAY too much Balsamic Vinegar with the olive oil. I inhaled it way to fast while trying to suck the salad in my mouth, irritating my throat in the process, which caused me looking like a moron having a panic attack in the kitchen, holding my throat and trying to grasp for air ! Finally managed my way to the inside of the fridge and a mouthful of water did the trick.. 30 seconds later. Anyway I’ll be watching the balsamic vinegar dosage from now on.. #neardeathexperience

  • chokeonit

    I never had a problem with white, apple cider, or balsamic vinegar, but I bought some very tasty peach vinegar at a winery, and tried to drink a straight small sip from a shot glass. Thought it was going to be the last thing I ever did. Really thought I was going to die, and I was alone. Could not breathe in or out. After a short time which seemed a lot longer, I was able to strain a partial breath, and it was difficult both in and out for the next many breaths. Very scary. But it’s some good shit, and here I am drinking it again right now!

  • Ruth

    You are NOT the only one! I choked last night on a lovely Caprese salad I made with a balsamic reduction — my throat closed up and then my nose did – this has happened before, so the main thing I tried to do was not panic (not easy when you are WHEEZING trying to get a shred of air in…) — finally it calmed down. My husband reminded me later that I have had this type of experience with balsamic vinegar before — he’s right! Too bad because I LOVE balsamic vinegar. But it is some strong stuff.

  • disqus_hEB9fatX2c

    same thing here!!!! I could not tell if I was choking or coughing…..I made the mistake of trying to drink the mixture since there was a spoonful left in the bowl and I hated to toss it out. Thought I was going to die…..not joking!!!

  • disqus_hEB9fatX2c

    Same thing happened to me….not kidding…I thought I was going to die!!!!!

  • Kathy Gray

    This is happening to me right now. It happens often usually set off by vinegar or pepper. I think there is trouble with my where my larynx and windpipe are, and that the skin there is extra sensitive. I’ve tried to explain this to my doctor but they just don’t get it. Sad to say that I guess I’m not alone.


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