Getting a pill stuck in your throat can be a terrifying moment, but rarely is it a medical emergency.

If the Person Can’t Breathe

If someone you know has swallowed a pill that has obstructed their airway and the person can’t breathe, try the Five-and-Five method or the Heimlich maneuver. Before you do any of these, have someone call 911.

To perform the Red Cross’ Five-and-Five method, follow these steps:

  1. Stand behind the person and lean them forward.
  2. With the heel of your hand, give five blows to their back.
  3. Place the thumbside of your fist above their navel, against the middle of their abdomen.
  4. Hold on to your wrist with the other hand.
  5. Give five quick thrusts to the abdomen.
  6. Repeat until the person coughs or the pill comes out.

To perform the Heimlich maneuver, follow these steps:

  1. Stand behind the person and wrap your arms around their waist.
  2. Lean the choking person forward.
  3. Make a fist with your hand and place it above the person’s navel.
  4. Use your other hand to hold on to your wrist.
  5. Press into the person’s abdomen in an upward motion.
  6. Repeat five times.
  7. If the pill is still stuck in the person’s throat, do this five more times.

If the person is unconscious, clear their airway with their finger if you can. Be careful not to push it farther down their throat.

If you are alone and have a pill stuck in your throat follow these steps:

  1. Make a fist and put your thumb below your rib cage and above the navel.
  2. Use your other hand to grab the fist. Press it into your lower ribcage with a quick upward movement.

You can also lean over a chair, railing, or table edge and thrust your abdominal area against the edge.

If the Person Is Coughing

If the person is coughing, it means he or she can breathe and that their airway is not 100 percent obstructed. Encourage them to continue coughing to get the pill out.

Pills shouldn’t be left in the throat to dissolve. A pill can burn the lining of the throat, causing esophagitis, a condition where the esophagus becomes inflamed. Esophagitis can also be caused by other conditions, such as gastroesphageal reflux disease (GERD), infections, or injury. This can make swallowing difficult and painful.

To help get a pill unstuck from your throat, try this method:

  1. Put water in your mouth.
  2. Lie down flat.
  3. Swallow.

The water should flush the pill down to your esophagus and lying down will help relax your throat so the pill can move.

It may take a few gulps, but typically a glass of water will dislodge the most stubborn of pills.

Why Do Pills Get Stuck?

Most often, pills get stuck in a person’s throat because there isn’t enough moisture to help the pill slide down. Pills, including coated ones and gel caps, are often difficult to swallow without liquid.

Pills will most likely become stuck in a person’s cricopharyngeus muscle, or the sphincter at the top of the esophagus. People who have disorders involving this muscle often have difficulty swallowing pills.

Young children and seniors often have the most trouble swallowing pills.

Ways to Prevent Getting a Pill Stuck in Your Throat 

Here are a few ways you can prevent a pill becoming lodged in your throat:

  • Take your pill with plenty of liquids. Drinking water before, during, and after you swallow the pill will ensure it won’t get stuck.
  • Give your throat muscles some room to work by tilting your head forward.
  • Take your pill with applesauce, a gelatin dessert, or yogurt, unless the medication needs to be taken on an empty stomach.
  • Check with your pharmacist about whether your pills can be crushed up and mixed with food or dissolved in water.