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 but it ends up obstructing their airway and the person can’t breathe, try the five-and-five method or the Heimlich maneuver. Before you do either of these, have someone call 911.
To perform the five-and-five method by the Red Cross, follow these steps:
- Stand behind the person, placing one arm across their chest, and lean them forward at the waist.
- With the heel of your hand, give five blows to their back, between the shoulder blades.
- Place the thumb side of your fist above their navel, against the middle of their abdomen.
- Hold on to your wrist with the other hand.
- Give five quick upward thrusts to the abdomen.
- Repeat until the person coughs or the pill comes out.
To perform just abdominal thrusts, also known as the Heimlich maneuver, follow these steps:
- Stand behind the person and wrap your arms around their waist.
- Lean the choking person forward slightly.
- Make a fist with your hand and place it slightly above the person’s navel.
- Use your other hand to hold on to your wrist.
- Press into the person’s abdomen in a quick, upward motion.
- Repeat five times, if needed.
If the person is unconscious, lay them on the ground and clear their airway with your finger if you can. Be careful not to push the pill farther down their throat.
If you’re alone
If you’re alone and a pill is obstructing your airway so you can’t breathe, follow these steps:
- Make a fist and place it above your navel.
- Use your other hand to hold onto your fist.
- Bend over a hard surface like a chair, railing, or table edge.
- Push your fist into the abdomen in a quick, upward movement.
If the person is coughing
If the person is coughing, it means they can breathe and that their airway isn’t 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 gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), infections, or injury. This can make swallowing difficult and painful.
You can also try this method:
- Put water in your mouth.
- Lie down flat.
The water should flush the pill down your esophagus. 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 the 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.