Ear, Nose & Throat

The Reasons You May Be Coughing After Eating

written by Becki Andrus

You just finished a delicious meal with the family, and then it begins: coughing after eating. This mysterious cough might occur occasionally, or some people start coughing after every meal.

Most of the time, coughing is a symptom of an underlying condition. The body is responding to an irritation in the throat. So, the best way to mitigate the cough is by addressing the underlying cause.

What is causing the coughing symptoms? Here are a few things you need to know about coughing after eating.

Clearing Irritants from the Respiratory System

Coughing is a reaction that occurs when the body senses irritants that need to be kept out of the respiratory system. For example, if food particles or phlegm remain in the throat, the body will initiate a cough to move these unwanted things out of the respiratory tract.

In most situations, coughing can be avoided by changing your diet, eating habits, or using medication. The best solution is to work with a doctor for an official diagnosis. Then, you can make the lifestyle changes needed to address these underlying causes.

Coughing Fits vs. Chronic Coughing

Everyone experiences it now and then when food or water “goes down the wrong pipe.” This occurrence results in an immediate, strong coughing fit. But the coughing will stop when the throat is cleared again.

Swallowing food or water wrong shouldn’t be a frequent experience. If it happens often, then you might talk to a doctor to see if there are any underlying conditions that contribute.

If the coughing happens after you are done eating, then it could be a sign of another issue. It’s important to note the timing of the cough, as well as foods that might be contributing to your cough.

Common Causes of Coughing After Eating

Here are some of the most common causes you start coughing after a meal or snack:

  • Respiratory Infections: Coughing is a common symptom associated with upper respiratory infections because of congestion and postnasal drip. Eating can affect the congestion in your throat, resulting in the need to cough to clear the passageways.
  • Asthma: This chronic condition can affect the lungs, often causing chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing. Some people have a higher risk of an asthma attack after eating certain types of foods that cause irritation. Sulfites are a common offender, and they are often found in wine, beer, dried fruits, soft drinks, and pickled onions.
  • Food Allergies: One symptom of food allergies is coughing after eating. Usually, this reaction happens within two hours of eating. Severe allergic reactions can result in coughing or wheezing that leads to anaphylaxis, which could be life-threatening and requires immediate emergency treatment.
  • Acid Reflux: When the stomach acid moves up the esophagus, it can cause irritation in the throat, resulting in coughing. Look for other coughing symptoms, such as a bitter taste, sore throat, or heartburn.
  • GERD: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a more severe type of acid reflux. When you have a chronic cough after meals, regardless of the types of food you eat, it could be GERD.
  • Laryngopharyngeal Reflux: This condition is often referred to as LPR. It happens when the stomach acid moves high enough to affect the nose and/or larynx. It’s silent reflux, which means that you might be hoarse or need to clear your throat, but you don’t have other symptoms of acid reflux.
  • Dysphagia: Usually, dysphagia is connected with other conditions that affect the swallowing function. The body takes more effort and time to move the food from the mouth into the stomach, making it difficult to swallow. As a result, you might experience gagging or coughing when swallowing.

Dietary Changes to Prevent Coughing After Eating

If coughing frequently happens after eating, then you might try dietary changes to minimize the symptoms. Consider these changes in your diet:

Avoid Phlegm-Causing Foods

Certain types of food can cause phlegm after eating, such as dairy products. Some people have a sensitivity to cheese, milk, and cream.

The body might increase the production of phlegm, which increases the likelihood of coughing after the meal. Avoiding dairy ingredients might help to manage the coughing.

Spicy Foods

Spice can contribute to acid reflux, which is why your coughing might be more frequent after a spicy meal. Common culprits include peppers and hot sauce.

If you have been diagnosed with acid reflux or GERD, then follow the doctor’s recommendation to minimize foods that contribute to these conditions. It can also be helpful to use medications as prescribed.

Citrus and Acetic Acid

Some ingredients tickle the cough center and might result in coughing after eating. Pay attention to your coughing symptoms after eating citrus foods, such as oranges, limes, lemons, and grapefruit. Acetic acid (often found in pickled vegetables and vinegar) can cause a similar result.

When coughing increases after eating these foods, then you might need to minimize them or eliminate them from your diet completely.

Eating Habits

You can also reduce your chance of coughing after eating by changing your eating habits. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Overeating can increase the risk of acid reflux, so you should be proactive about managing portion sizes.
  • Eat slowly and chew well before swallowing
  • Sit up straight and avoid eating while lying down 
  • Take small sips of water between bites
  • Keep a food diary to see the patterns that increase the risk of coughing after a meal
  • Don’t eat during a coughing fit
  • Take medications as recommended by your doctor for asthma or acid reflux

Consulting with a Doctor about Chronic Coughing

As you can see, multiple factors could be contributing to the risk of coughing after a meal. Many of these causes are easy to manage or treat. It’s essential that you talk to a doctor to find the underlying cause of your coughing fits.

An ENT can help with diagnosis and treatment. Do you live near the Collin County or Dallas County area? Then call us at Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat for more information. We have two offices in the area: Frisco and Plano, TX. You can book an appointment through our online form or call our office at (972) 596-4005.

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