A cough or need to clear your throat after eating may happen after every meal or occasionally. Causes may include acid reflux, asthma, allergies, aspiration, or infections, among others.

Coughing is your body’s way of keeping irritants out of your respiratory system. Occasional coughing is natural, including after eating. Persistent coughing, on the other hand, may indicate an underlying condition that may merit medical attention.

Most causes of coughing after eating are manageable by engaging in a few lifestyle changes. Others may require medications and professional support.

Here are a few common causes of cough that happens right after eating:

Acid reflux occurs when stomach contents, mainly acid, move back up to the esophagus (food pipe). The acid may irritate and even damage the esophagus, which can trigger coughing and other symptoms.

Other symptoms of acid reflux may include:

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

GERD is the result of persistent and severe acid reflux. A chronic cough, especially after eating, is a common symptom.

Other symptoms of GERD may include:

Laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR)

LPR, sometimes called silent reflux because it doesn’t have traditional acid reflux symptoms, is a type of GERD that involves stomach acid passing through your esophagus and into your larynx (voice box) or even your nose. You can have LPR with or without GERD.

LPR can cause coughing during and after meals. You might also cough when waking up, talking, or laughing.

Symptoms of LPR may also include:

  • voice hoarseness
  • constantly needing to clear your throat
  • sensation of something dripping down the back of your throat from the nose, called postnasal drip

Untreated LPR may eventually lead to voice disorders or throat ulcers, so early treatment is key.

Acid reflux, GERD, and LPR can be managed with lifestyle changes and medications.

Upper respiratory infections may cause persistent cough, which usually clears up within 2 to 4 weeks. Any cough lasting 8 weeks or longer is considered chronic. A chronic cough after eating could be caused by an untreated infection.

An infection-related cough sounds like a harsh, dry, persistent hack. It causes inflammation of 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, a doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications, such as inhaled or oral steroids.

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the lungs. It often causes wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing.

Asthma usually starts in childhood, but it can also develop when you’re older. Coughing caused by asthma may intensify late at night or early in the morning.

The symptoms of asthma may appear after ingesting foods and liquids containing natural or added sulfites, if you’re sensitive to these compounds. For example:

  • beer
  • wine
  • dried fruits and vegetables
  • pickled onions
  • soft drinks

If you tend to cough after eating or drinking any of these, asthma could be the cause.

You can often easily manage asthma using medications and avoiding common asthma triggers.

Food allergies usually develop in children, but they can appear at any age. Food allergies typically cause a response within 2 hours of eating.

Allergic reaction symptoms vary from person to person, and they sometimes affect the respiratory system, causing you to cough and sneeze after eating. Other respiratory symptoms of a food allergy include wheezing, swelling, and shortness of breath.

In rare cases, food allergies can lead to anaphylaxis, a life threatening condition that requires immediate care.

Dysphagia refers to 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 challenging.

Dysphagia can lead to coughing or gagging while swallowing. It can also make it feel like food is stuck in your throat, causing you to cough.

Many conditions can cause dysphagia, including acid reflux and GERD. Sometimes, simple exercises are enough to improve dysphagia. In more serious cases, you may need an endoscopic procedure or surgery.

Sometimes, small pieces of food or drops of liquid are inhaled into your lungs when you eat. This can introduce bacteria to these organs. Aspiration usually happens when you swallow something and it “goes down the wrong hole.”

Healthy lungs typically clear themselves out after this, but if they don’t, bacteria may cause 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 may include:

  • painful swallowing
  • wheezing after eating
  • heartburn
  • fever that starts within an hour of eating
  • recurring pneumonia symptoms
  • increased saliva production
  • 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.

If coughing after eating is related to an underlying condition, managing the said condition is key to improving this symptom. Only a healthcare professional can provide you with an accurate diagnosis and management plan.

In general, if you tend to cough after eating, these steps may help:

  • Eat slowly and chew your food completely.
  • Keep a food diary and note any foods that typically cause you to cough after eating.
  • If you’re already coughing a lot, avoid eating large chunks of food or sips of liquid.
  • If you are undergoing treatment for a related condition, follow the doctor’s indications, especially those for acid reflux or asthma.
  • Keep a glass of water nearby when you’re eating, and try to sip between bites.

Acid reflux, GERD, asthma, allergies, aspiration, and infections are common causes of coughing after eating.

If you occasionally cough after eating and recover promptly, consider reviewing your eating habits. Are you eating too fast or large bites? Are you consuming foods or drinks that you may be sensitive to?

If you persistently cough after eating and the symptoms don’t improve, seeing a healthcare professional is highly recommended.