Pills can be hard to swallow, but a range of tips — such as the chin tuck or leaning the head forward, using a lubricating gel, or requesting smaller pills — may make it easier.
There are a number of different approaches for swallowing a pill, but a person may need to experiment and try different strategies until they find something that works best for them.
Read on for step-by-step instructions for how to swallow a pill, as well as tips for making it easier.
To swallow a pill with water:
- Place the pill on the tongue, near the back of the throat.
- Take a large sip of water.
- Leaning forward slightly, swallow the water and pill together. Drink another sip of water to encourage the pill to go down.
Sitting or standing still while doing this, and having no distractions, may help.
Dry swallowing pills can be difficult and uncomfortable. If a doctor or medication label advises people to swallow pills with water, try to find something to drink before taking it.
In situations where a person must take a pill immediately and they cannot find a drink, they can try dry swallowing. To do this, wait until the mouth fills with saliva, then place the pill on the tongue and swallow with the saliva.
Swallowing pills can be challenging for children. Pills can seem very large, and the idea of swallowing whole pills may feel intimidating to them.
Parents and caregivers can make it easier by proactively teaching children how to swallow pills. Try:
- Practicing: Before the need to take medication arises, try getting the child to practice swallowing a small, safe food, such as a piece of bread. This allows them to practice the skill in a low-pressure situation.
- Setting a time limit: Practice for a few minutes at a time, then stop. This prevents the practice from feeling like work and can help build confidence with each new practice session.
- Giving a reward: Give a small reward, such as stickers, each time the child practices.
During each practice, caregivers should:
- Ask the child to sit upright in a chair and give them a glass of water.
- Start with a tiny item, such as a crumb of bread. Have the child position the crumb on their tongue, then swallow with water.
- Practice with the crumb several times. Once the child seems comfortable, move to something slightly bigger, such as a very small piece of soft candy.
- Work upward to a food that is the size of a pill they might need to take in the future, such as a small hard candy. If the child panics or gags, slow down and return to an earlier step in the process.
When it is time to take a pill, caregivers can repeat these steps but with the medication instead.
Always make sure that a medication is safe for the child’s age before giving it to them. Do not leave the child unsupervised with something they could choke on.
For children and adults, who struggle swallowing pills, the following interventions may help.
Pill swallowing devices
A number of products and devices may make swallowing pills easier,
- Lubricating gels: These lubricate the pill to help make it go down easier. This can help people with dysphagia and dry throats. Talk with a doctor before applying any substance to a pill.
- Pill coating devices: These coat pills with a flavored coating that helps the pill go down more easily. They can also make the pill taste better, making this option ideal for children.
- Swallowing straws: These devices make it easier to swallow a pill with water or another liquid. A person simply places the pill in the straw, then drinks the liquid through it.
- Pill-swallowing cups: These devices require a person to place the pill inside of a cup or mouthpiece. A person then drinks the liquid in the cup, and the pill follows with the flow of the liquid.
Changing positions can make swallowing pills easier. Some people with pill swallowing difficulties find that tucking the chin while swallowing makes it easier to swallow a pill. Others prefer leaning their head slightly forward.
For some people, trauma, anxiety, or sensory issues make it difficult to swallow a pill. In this scenario, the emotional distress a person feels may make it hard to swallow, even if they try.
People may benefit from speaking with a therapist if anxiety or a choking phobia is making it difficult for them to swallow important medications.
Physical or occupational therapy
Physical or occupational therapy may help people with dysphagia, children with developmental delays, and others with physical difficulties swallowing pills. A doctor can usually make a referral.
Sometimes a pill is too large for a person to swallow, or they are simply unable to swallow any pill. When this happens, ask a doctor about an alternative. Depending on the drug, a doctor may recommend:
- using a smaller or coated pill
- switching to a liquid medication
- using a different medication, or no medication at all
Some techniques for swallowing pills are unhelpful or unsafe. Avoid:
- Throwing pills into the mouth: This can cause choking if the pill slips down the throat.
- Tilting the head back: This narrows the esophagus, making it harder to swallow a pill.
- Crushing or dissolving pills: Doing this may change the way some medications work. Some may absorb faster, causing side effects. Others may irritate the esophagus or stomach lining. If a person has never crushed or dissolved a medication before, and the label does not advise a person to do this, they should ask a doctor if it is safe.
- Forcing medication: If a person seems unable to take a pill, do not force them. This could cause choking. It may also increase their fear surrounding pill swallowing.
Swallowing pills is a skill a person must learn. As a result, children can experience some difficulties the first time they try taking a pill. Adults who never received help learning to swallow pills
Other potential causes for difficulties swallowing pills include:
- Anxiety: If a person is afraid of taking pills or of choking, they may find swallowing tablets very difficult. Anxiety can
reducesaliva production and cause muscle tension, making it harder to swallow a pill. It may also activate a person’s gag reflex, pushing the pill to the front of their mouth.
- Conditions of the mouth or throat: If a person has a medical condition that affects their mouth or throat, this may make pill swallowing more difficult or painful.
- Dysphagia: This refers to a person’s impaired ability to swallow. It can occur on its own, or as a consequence of another condition, such as Parkinson’s disease or dementia.
If a person consistently has problems swallowing pills and is not sure why, they should speak with a doctor. They should also speak with a doctor promptly if they:
- have symptoms of dysphagia
- have difficulty taking important medications regularly or on time
- have a child who cannot or will not take a necessary medication
People can also consider speaking with a doctor or therapist if swallowing pills causes significant anxiety.
Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department if a person is choking. The symptoms of choking include:
- clutching at the throat
- an inability to speak or breathe
Swallowing pills can be challenging, especially if a person has never taken one before. Tilting the head forward slightly, drinking plenty of water, and trying to relax may help.
If possible, it can be helpful to practice in a low pressure setting with candy or bread crumbs. This may help children learn to swallow pills.
If a person struggles with swallowing pills, medical support can help — either by offering additional tips or assistance, or by providing a more manageable alternative. People who have difficulty swallowing for no clear reason should speak with a doctor, especially if they did not have trouble with this in the past.