It is not uncommon to cough after eating. Coughing is a typical reaction of the body trying to clear irritants from the airways. Irritants are sometimes introduced into the body when eating, and this can lead to coughing.
If coughing after eating happens frequently, people should consult a doctor to determine a cause. Once the cause is known, a person can make some lifestyle changes or take medications to treat it.
Some of the most common causes include the following:
- food allergies
- acid reflux (GERD or LPR)
- aspiration pneumonia
There are many potential causes of coughing after eating:
Allergies are a common cause of coughing after eating. They can develop at any age but typically develop during childhood.
When someone has a food allergy, their body’s immune system is overreacting to what it believes is a harmful substance. People may also experience:
- shortness of breath
- a runny nose
Common foods people are allergic to include:
- tree nuts
People can have an allergy to one or more foods. If a person coughs because of a food allergy, it is essential that they find out what foods trigger the coughing.
A doctor can help pinpoint the foods causing the reaction.
Asthma affects the airways and develops after exposure to an irritant, which can include food.
Sulfite is a common additive found in many drinks and food that
- dried fruit
- pickled onions
- soft drinks
However, any food that causes a person to experience an allergic reaction may trigger an asthma attack as well.
In addition to coughing, a person may experience:
- tightness in the chest
- trouble breathing
Dysphagia causes difficulty when swallowing. When dysphagia occurs, a person’s body has great difficulty moving food and drink from the mouth to the stomach. It can result in pain or discomfort.
Dysphagia may make a person feel as if food has become lodged in the throat. This feeling can lead to gagging or coughing after eating as the body tries to clear the perceived blockage from the throat.
Conditions such as acid reflux often cause dysphagia. A doctor can determine the underlying cause.
Acid reflux occurs when acid from the stomach travels up the food pipe. The acid may make its way into the upper food pipe or throat through the opening of the stomach, known as the lower esophageal sphincter.
When a person is eating, the sphincter relaxes to allow food to travel to the stomach. In some cases, the sphincter does not close entirely. The resulting gap allows acid from the stomach to travel upward.
The acid can irritate the food pipe, causing coughing. People may also experience:
- a sour or bitter taste
- a sore throat
- burning sensation in the chest
More frequent acid reflux can be caused by:
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR)
GERD is a chronic condition that causes a more severe form of acid reflux. When someone has GERD, they are very likely going to experience a cough as well as:
- trouble swallowing
- nausea vomiting
- reflux occurring two or more times a week
- excessive stomach gas
LPR does not have the same symptoms of GERD. When it occurs, stomach acid may travel as far up as the nasal passages. Similarly to GERD, it can cause coughing as well as:
- post nasal drip
- need to clear throat
A doctor can treat these two conditions with medications. A person can also control these conditions with diet modifications. However, there is no cure for them.
It is possible to inhale small particles of liquid or food when eating. In healthy people, the lungs will expel these particles through coughing.
Sometimes, the lungs may not be healthy enough to remove the tiny particles. When this occurs, bacteria from the food may become trapped in the lungs, resulting in aspiration pneumonia.
People are at an increased risk for developing aspiration pneumonia if they have acid reflux or trouble swallowing.
Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia include:
- a wet or wheezing cough following eating
- painful swallowing
- extra saliva
- shortness of breath
- congestion after eating and drinking
- fever shortly after eating
When someone experiences these symptoms, it is essential they speak to a doctor. Aspiration pneumonia can cause serious medical problems, such as respiratory failure or lung abscess.
People might experience a cough caused by an infection in the upper respiratory system. If a cough does not clear up properly, it can lead to a person coughing immediately following eating or drinking.
This type of cough is difficult to treat as it irritates the throat, causing the person to cough more and preventing healing.
It is possible to develop an infection in the food pipe or larynx. This type of infection may be caused by a virus, fungus, or bacteria. The throat may become inflamed and irritated when infected. The inflammation causes a person to cough, particularly following meals.
Treating the infection will stop the coughing.
Not everyone who experiences a cough after eating will need to see a doctor. However, it is a good idea to see a doctor for a post-eating cough when:
- it occurs frequently
- it lasts longer than 2 weeks
- the reason for the cough is unknown
- there is blood in the mucus
- the person experiencing the cough is an active smoker
- coughing worsens
- the person experiencing the cough experiences other symptoms
Treatment will vary based on the cause. Treatment may be as simple as avoiding trigger foods or treating the condition with medications.
Treatment often focuses on prevention. Steps to prevent coughing following eating or drinking include:
- slow down when eating
- drink more water during meals
- track foods to help determine which cause coughing
- take all prescribed medications
- stop eating during a coughing attack
- use a humidifier to prevent a dry throat
- try supplements to aid digestion
People can often avoid coughing following eating with some simple prevention strategies.
Avoiding foods that trigger coughing is often a good first step. However, people should remain aware of changes in their cough, other symptoms, and how frequent and long the cough is lasting.
People should see a doctor if they have any concerns or doubts.