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Shortness of breath after eating can be an uncomfortable or distressing experience but is typically not a cause for concern. Possible causes include food allergies, inhaling food particles, and acid reflux.

There are many possible reasons why a person may feel out of breath after eating. The treatments differ depending on the cause.

This article outlines some of these causes and information on treatments and when to contact a doctor.

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Food allergies are a common cause of shortness of breath after eating.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology estimates that 4% of adults and 4–6% of children in the U.S. have a food allergy. Most symptoms occur minutes or hours after eating.

Shortness of breath after eating is one of several symptoms associated with food allergies.

People who suspect a food allergy can talk with their doctor. A doctor can diagnose food allergies by doing safe tests. Tests may include an oral food challenge, which involves a person eating small amounts of the suspected trigger food.

The best way to help prevent allergic reactions is to avoid trigger foods. There is no treatment for food allergies, but researchers are currently carrying out clinical trials to try to work out how people can build up a tolerance for specific foods.

Anaphylaxis

Shortness of breath can indicate a rare, potentially life threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. People who experience anaphylaxis need urgent medical attention.

The signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

People diagnosed with severe allergic reactions need to carry an EpiPen, a medical device that allows people to self-inject epinephrine to counteract an allergic reaction. Family and friends should also learn how to use the EpiPen. People should phone the emergency services after delivering an EpiPen injection.

Occasionally, people may inhale small particles of food or liquid while eating. This is called pulmonary aspiration.

People with healthy lungs are typically able to cough up these particles. Coughing can cause temporary shortness of breath and possibly a sore throat.

When a person’s lungs cannot bring up the particles, the person may develop aspiration pneumonia. This occurs when particles cause an infection inside the air sacs of one or both lungs.

Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia include:

Treatment for aspiration pneumonia depends on a person’s overall health and the severity of their condition. In most cases, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.

A person experiencing heartburn may feel short of breath after eating or start to wheeze. This is due to stomach acid flowing back up the pipe that connects the stomach to the mouth, known as the esophagus.

Heartburn is a common symptom of acid reflux. When acid rises back up into a person’s throat, it can irritate the airways and cause them to swell. This can cause breathing difficulties.

Other common symptoms of heartburn include:

Difficulty breathing can also be a symptom of persistent acid reflux, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

A person may wish to speak with their doctor about treating heartburn symptoms with medicines, including:

  • proton pump inhibitors, which work by reducing the amount of stomach acid
  • antacids, which are medications that neutralize stomach acid
  • H2 blockers, which reduce the amount of stomach acid by binding to cells that stimulate hydrochloric acid production in the stomach

Making lifestyle and dietary changes may also ease or help prevent heartburn. People who experience heartburn may find relief by avoiding acidic foods and caffeine.

Exercising frequently, eating smaller meals, reaching or maintaining a moderate weight, and staying upright after eating can all help to alleviate heartburn symptoms.

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A hiatus hernia can cause pain in the middle or upper abdomen.

A hernia occurs when an organ or tissue squeezes into a part of the body where it does not belong.

A hiatus hernia is where the stomach bulges up into the chest through the muscle wall that separates the diaphragm and the abdomen. A hiatus hernia can cause shortness of breath that worsens after eating.

A paraesophageal hernia is a type of hiatus hernia that occurs when the stomach squeezes up next to the esophagus. If it grows too big, it can push on the diaphragm and squash the lungs, causing chest pain and shortness of breath. These symptoms may be worse after eating, as a full stomach increases the pressure on the diaphragm.

Some paraesophageal hernias do not require treatment. However, a person may require surgery if they experience the following symptoms:

  • chest pain
  • pain in the middle or upper abdomen
  • difficulty swallowing
  • stomach ulcer
  • GERD

A surgeon will usually repair a paraesophageal hernia using keyhole surgery, or laparoscopic surgery. They will place a tiny lighted camera, called a laparoscope, into the esophagus to view and move the stomach back into position.

Laparoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive procedure, and most people make a full recovery within 4 weeks.

People who have asthma may experience shortness of breath after eating, particularly if they also have GERD.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a disease affecting the airways within the lungs. In asthma, allergens or irritants entering the airway cause them to narrow. This triggers a range of respiratory symptoms, including:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • tightness in the chest

What is GERD?

GERD is a digestive disorder affecting the muscles in the esophagus, which is the tube that connects the mouth and stomach.

Typically, the muscles in the esophagus narrow after eating to keep the food in the stomach. When a person has GERD, these muscles do not close up completely, allowing stomach acid and partially digested food to travel back up into the esophagus. This acid reflux can cause heartburn.

What is the link between GERD and asthma?

People with asthma are at a higher risk of developing GERD.

In GERD-related asthma, stomach acid irritates the nerve endings in the esophagus. The brain responds by narrowing the small airways in the lungs, which triggers asthma symptoms.

Sometimes, a person might inhale stomach acid into their lungs. This irritates the airways and can cause breathing difficulties, coughing, and chest tightness.

Treatment

The key to treating GERD-related asthma is to treat acid reflux. Treatments include:

  • OTC medications such as Pepcid A-C
  • eating five or six small meals a day rather than three large meals
  • wearing loose clothing around the waistline
  • avoiding lying down within 3 hours of eating
  • quitting smoking

People with GERD may also choose to avoid the following foods, which may trigger acid reflux in some people:

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A persistent cough and tightness in the chest are potential symptoms of COPD.

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive lung disease that makes it difficult for the body to move air into and out of the lungs.

People with COPD may experience shortness of breath, resulting in reduced energy levels. This can make everyday activities difficult.

Because breathing and digestion both require a lot of energy, some people with COPD may become breathless after eating meals.

Other common symptoms of COPD include:

  • frequent coughing
  • tightness in the chest
  • wheezing

Having a full stomach or a bloated abdomen can worsen breathing difficulties in people with COPD. People may find their symptoms ease if they eat small, frequent meals instead of fewer large meals.

The COPD Foundation offers some other tips for reducing shortness of breath after eating, including:

  • taking time to digest after eating a meal
  • eating slowly
  • eating foods that require less chewing, such as mashed potatoes or soup
  • eating fewer sugary foods that can cause tiredness
  • restricting foods that cause bloating, such as raw fruit and vegetables
  • avoiding lying down after meals
  • avoiding eating while short of breath, as this can trap gas, which worsens breathing difficulties

People who experience ongoing shortness of breath after meals should contact a doctor. The doctor will conduct tests to determine the underlying cause and may prescribe medications to ease symptoms.

Sometimes, shortness of breath can indicate a serious underlying medical condition. According to the American Lung Association, it is important to seek medical attention if shortness of breath occurs while at rest, lasts longer than 30 minutes, or occurs alongside any of the following:

  • pain or pressure in the chest
  • difficulty breathing when lying flat
  • wheezing
  • lightheadedness or dizziness
  • fever, chills, and cough
  • blue tinge to the lips or fingertips
  • swelling of the feet or ankles

Breathing difficulties that occur after eating may be a one-off symptom caused by breathing in a small particle of food or liquid.

However, people who experience shortness of breath after every meal or eating certain foods should contact a doctor to find out the cause. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the breathlessness.

Sometimes, breathing difficulties can suggest a serious underlying medical condition. It can help to know the signs and symptoms that indicate a need for urgent medical attention.