Many people have a mysterious cough after eating. It might happen after every meal or only occasionally. There are several possible causes of this, including acid reflux, asthma, food allergies, and dysphagia, which refers to difficulty swallowing.
Coughing is your body’s way of keeping irritants out of your respiratory system, so work with your doctor to figure out what’s causing the irritation. Most causes are treatable by changing your diet and eating habits or taking medication.
1. Acid reflux and related conditions
Acid reflux happens when stomach acid moves back up to your esophagus. There’s a band of muscle around the bottom of your esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter. When you eat or drink, it relaxes, allowing food and liquid to move into your stomach. Sometimes it doesn’t completely close after you eat or drink, allowing acid from your stomach to move up into your esophagus. This irritates your esophagus, which may cause you to cough.
Other symptoms of acid reflux include:
- sore throat
- bitter taste in the back of your throat
- sour taste in your mouth
- burning sensation in your chest, known as heartburn
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Other symptoms of GERD include:
- having acid reflux at least twice a week
- nausea or vomiting
- trouble swallowing
Laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR)
LPR, sometimes called silent reflux because it doesn’t have traditional reflux symptoms, is a type of GERD that involves stomach acid passing through your esophagus and into your larynx or even your nose. You can have LPR with or without GERD. LPR can make you cough during and after meals. You might also cough when waking up, talking, or laughing.
Symptoms of LPR include:
- constantly needing to clear your throat
- sensation of something dripping down the back of your throat from the nose, called postnasal drip
Talk to your doctor if you have any LPR symptoms. Untreated LPR may eventually lead to voice disorders or throat ulcers, so early treatment is key.
2. Respiratory infections
Many coughs are caused by upper respiratory infections, but these coughs usually clear up within two to three weeks. Any cough lasting 8 weeks or longer is considered chronic. A chronic cough after eating could be caused by an infection that never healed properly.
A cough caused by an infection sounds like a harsh, dry, persistent hack. This cough causes inflammation to the airway, which can lead to more coughing.
Coughs caused by infections are difficult to treat because the cycle of inflammation and coughing prevents healing. If the cough doesn’t go away, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatories, such as inhaled or oral steroids.
Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the lungs. It can cause wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing. Asthma usually starts in childhood, but it can also appear when you’re older. Coughing caused by asthma is usually worse late at night or early in the morning.
The symptoms of asthma worsen during an attack. Many things that can trigger an asthma attack, including sulphites, which are in beer and wine as well as dried fruits and vegetables, pickled onions, and soft drinks. If you tend to cough after eating or drinking any of these, asthma could be the cause.
4. Food allergies
Food allergies usually develop when you’re a child, but they can strike at any age. It’s even possible to develop an allergy to a food that you’ve been eating for years. Food allergies typically cause an allergic response within two hours of eating.
Allergic reaction symptoms vary from person to person, and they sometimes affect the respiratory system, causing you to cough. Other respiratory symptoms of a food allergy include wheezing and shortness of breath.
In rare cases, food allergies can lead to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition that affects your breathing. Make sure you know how to recognize it so you can get immediate treatment.
Dysphagia refers to having difficulty swallowing. If you have dysphagia, your body takes more time and effort to move food and liquid into your stomach, making swallowing painful or almost impossible. This can lead to coughing or gagging while swallowing. Dysphagia can also make it feel like you have food stuck in your throat, causing you to cough.
Many conditions can cause dysphagia, including acid reflux and GERD. Work with you doctor to figure out what’s causing your dysphagia. Sometimes simple exercises are enough to fix the problem. In more serious cases, you may need an endoscopic procedure or surgery.
6. Aspiration pneumonia
Sometimes small pieces of food or drops of liquid are inhaled into your lungs, where they can introduce bacteria. This usually happens when you swallow something and it “goes down the wrong hole.” Healthy lungs typically clear themselves out, but if they don’t, these bacteria can cause a serious condition called aspiration pneumonia. Having acid reflux or dysphagia increases your risk of developing aspiration pneumonia.
A wet-sounding cough after eating is a symptom of aspiration pneumonia. You may also cough up mucus that looks green or bloody. Other symptoms include:
- painful swallowing
- coughing or wheezing after eating
- fever that starts within an hour of eating
- recurring pneumonia
- extra saliva
- congestion after eating or drinking
- shortness of breath or fatigue while eating or drinking
Left untreated, aspiration pneumonia can cause serious problems, such as a lung abscess or respiratory failure. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you think you might have aspiration pneumonia.
How can I prevent coughing after eating?
Regardless of what’s causing you to cough after eating, some simple steps may help you cough less and avoid complications such as aspiration pneumonia:
- Eat slowly.
- Keep a food diary and mark any foods that make you cough.
- Don’t eat during a coughing attack — this could lead to choking.
- Take all your medications, especially those for acid reflux or asthma, as prescribed.
- Keep a glass of water nearby when you’re eating and take lots of sips.
The bottom line
Several things can make you cough after eating, and most of them are easy to treat or manage. Keep track of any additional symptoms you have and work with your doctor to figure out the underlying cause.