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Reasons for Coughing After Eating

The upper portion of your digestive and respiratory systems both course through your throat and share common nerve pathways. As a result, eating may directly or indirectly stimulate coughing after eating. Acid reflux, swallowing disorders and food allergies are among the possible causes. The timing and duration of your cough and associated symptoms can help distinguish among the possible culprits. If you consistently cough after eating, see your doctor to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) refers to a chronic condition in which stomach contents escape into the esophagus or higher in the throat, causing symptoms and/or tissue damage 5. Common symptoms include heartburn and a sour taste in the mouth, which typically occur after eating when the stomach is full. GERD can also potentially trigger coughing after eating in several ways.

Refluxed stomach contents can irritate the esophagus and trigger coughing due to shared nerve pathways between the esophagus and lungs. Less commonly, minute amounts of refluxed stomach contents travel far enough up the throat to enter the upper airways of the lungs. This inflames the airways and stimulates the cough reflex. In people with both GERD and asthma, reflux may trigger airway constriction, leading to coughing and wheezing after meals.

Dysphagia

Difficult or painful swallowing, known medically as dysphagia, may cause coughing during and after eating. Difficulty swallowing can lead to stomach contents entering the lungs in small or large quantities. Small quantities irritate the airways and typically cause frequent coughing, which may be worse after eating. Entry of large amounts of stomach contents into the lungs causes a serious condition known as aspiration pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Food Allergy

Respiratory symptoms associated with a typical allergic reaction typically occur in conjunction with skin and/or digestive symptoms, such as:

  • hives
  • itchiness
  • abdominal cramps
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

Warnings and Precautions

See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience coughing after eating. Your symptoms and their timing, along with a physical examination and tests -- such as x-rays, allergy testing or looking at the esophagus with a optical scope -- can aid in making a diagnosis. Treatment varies depending on the cause of your cough.

Seek emergency medical care if you experience difficulty breathing or symptoms that might signal an anaphylactic allergic reaction to food.

Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.

The Wrap Up

The upper portion of your digestive and respiratory systems both course through your throat and share common nerve pathways. If you consistently cough after eating, see your doctor to determine the cause and appropriate treatment. Refluxed stomach contents can irritate the esophagus and trigger coughing due to shared nerve pathways between the esophagus and lungs. This inflames the airways and stimulates the cough reflex. In people with both GERD and asthma, reflux may trigger airway constriction, leading to coughing and wheezing after meals.

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