The most common causes of chronic coughing after having a meal are acid reflux, food allergies, and asthma.
If you are always coughing after eating, make sure to consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Why do we cough?
The speed of coughing is around 50 miles per hour, it is surprisingly effective in clearing the airways and lungs.
Is coughing an illness?
There are many reasons why we cough. For example, it’s quite common that dust gets into our airways and we cough to get rid of it.
Coughing itself is not an illness, but might indicate a health problem.
We all know that when we get cold or have flu, we cough. However, in this article, we are going to examine a different case, when eating is the “trigger” of coughing.
Foods that cause coughing
Depending on the underlying medical condition, a wide variety of foods and drinks can cause coughing after eating.
Why do I cough after eating oily food?
Coughing after greasy or oily food is often caused by acid reflux. This is because these foods are hard to digest and can trigger acid reflux episodes.
Common trigger foods are:
- fast food, junk food
- red meat
- fried food
Coughing after drinking milk
Coughing might be triggered because of the texture of the milk, as some people tend to cough when drinking similar liquids of the same thickness.
Allergy might also be a possible cause, which can cause throat irritation and might make you cough. In this case, coughing usually occurs immediately after drinking.
Full-fat cow milk might also trigger acid reflux, because of its fat content. As opposed to other causes, acid reflux coughs occur a bit more time after having a meal.
Coughing after eating spicy food
Spicy foods might simply irritate your throat and make you cough. If this is the case, a few sips of milk might help. Water usually doesn’t help, as, unlike milk, it doesn’t dissolve the capsaicin, which causes the irritation.
Other possible causes are:
- Allergy: Spices contain multiple allergens, however, a true allergy to spices is rare.
- Reflux: It is still debated, whether spicy foods cause acid reflux or not, they definitely trigger symptoms for many people. However, since we usually add spice to greasy food, it might be the fat that triggers the cough and not the spice.
Why do I cough after eating sweet things?
Sweets usually don’t cause coughing, however, they might absorb some moisture from the tissues, making the throat a bit drier. This might trigger coughing for those, who have a dry throat.
Sugar can also cause low-grade inflammation, which might exacerbate the symptoms of existing medical conditions. E.g. sweets might make you cough if you have bronchitis.
Coughing after eating or drinking cold
If only cold foods and beverages make you cough, it might be bronchospasm. In this condition, the airways tighten up because of the cold and this can cause wheezing or coughing. This is especially common in people with asthma.
Why do I cough after I eat?
There are a few conditions that cause coughing after eating:
- acid reflux or GERD
- postnasal drip
- food allergies
- dysphagia (swallowing difficulties)
- respiratory infections
- chronic laryngitis
- aspiration from dysphagia
Why do I always cough after eating?
Silent reflux and asthma are two common causes of frequent coughing after every meal.
GERD coughing after eating
Acid reflux happens when the contents of the stomach can move back into the esophagus. GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease is the chronic form of acid reflux (two or more episodes per week).
Two main theories are trying to explain reflux-related coughing. Basically, both of them suggest that the stomach acid entering the food pipe, or going even higher, into the throat is causing the cough.
Coughing among acid reflux sufferers is so common, that it is often called GERD cough. It is usually a chronic dry cough, that gets worse when lying down.
Other typical symptoms of acid reflux:
According to this study, up to 75% of people suffering from acid reflux coughs show no gastrointestinal symptoms.
How to diagnose a GERD cough?
If you have a chronic cough – cough that doesn’t get better even after 8 weeks – you should see a doctor to find the problem.
Cough caused by acid reflux is fairly common, but the diagnosis is not easy.
First, an x-ray might be needed to make sure the lungs are healthy. If the chest radiographic findings are normal, there is a good chance that acid reflux causes the persistent cough.
Doctors tend to recommend a 24h esophageal pH monitoring, as this is considered to be the best method to diagnose the connection between reflux and coughing, even though this method is not sensitive enough to detect a short period of reflux or non-acid reflux.
Since there is no surefire way of telling whether a chronic cough is related to reflux or not, doctors might recommend medications in case reflux seems to be the likely cause.
Food allergies and coughing
Another common cause of eating-related coughing is a food allergy.
Allergic reactions to food often occur soon after eating (can be right after having a meal, but usually within two hours).
Common food allergy symptoms are:
- swelling of various body parts – usually the lips, mouth, tongue, or throat
- hives, itching
- stomach problems – stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
A rare, but very serious, symptom of food allergy is anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical help!
People with asthma cough often, even when not eating anything.
However, certain foods might trigger an asthma cough. The most common triggers are sulfites/sulfur dioxide and foods that one is allergic to.
This study says that sulfites trigger symptoms for about 3-10% of people suffering from asthma
Another study examined the sulfites in orange drinks:
Sulphur dioxide has not previously been reported to cause exacerbations of asthma when ingested as a food preservative. It is used as a preservative in a wide range of acidic beverages and foods, and should be considered as possibly causal in patients suffering from apparently cryptogenic asthma, and asthma seemingly due to food allergy.(source)
- wine, beer
- dried fruits
- acidic fruit juices
Food allergies can also trigger asthma coughing. According to this study, those who have both food allergy and asthma might experience more severe symptoms.
Less common triggers of coughing after eating
Dysphagia means the difficulty of swallowing. This is usually caused by some sort of esophageal damage, e.g. acid reflux is known to damage the tissues in the esophagus and dysphagia is a common symptom of reflux.
This study has found that dysphagia is common in those patients who have chronic cough and do not respond well to therapies.
Coughing up dark, smelly mucus can indicate a condition called aspiration from dysphagia.
This happens when food or drink accidentally enters the lung (aspiration) because of swallowing difficulties (dysphagia).
This doesn’t happen too often and in most cases, healthy people can cough up these foreign particles.
However, when the food stays in the lung, the bacteria on its surface might cause a more serious condition, called aspiration pneumonia.
Chronic laryngitis is the inflammation of the voice box. This condition might cause coughing even when not eating anything.
However, while eating, foods might irritate the throat and trigger or make symptoms like coughing worse.
Allergies and acid reflux are possible causes of chronic laryngitis and dysphagia is a possible symptom.
Coughing after eating treatment
While the first thing should be to consult with a doctor, you might want to try the following recommendations.
Find out which foods make you cough
It is quite possible that there are certain trigger foods that cause reflux and coughing for you. The most common ones are:
- certain drinks: alcohol, soda, coffee
- sugary or greasy foods: chocolate, pizza, fast foods, etc.
- certain vegetables: tomatoes, onions, garlic, etc.
- certain fruits: grapefruit, orange, lime, etc.
- red meat
Since everybody reacts differently to these foods, it’s a good idea to use a food diary, which can help you find the connection between certain foods and coughing after eating.
Once you know your trigger foods, try to avoid them and see if your coughing gets better.
If you cannot find your trigger foods but you know you are prone to eating too much or too fast, try to slow down and limit the amount you eat.
This is a tricky one. If you have reflux, stomach acids are flowing up into the esophagus and you lie down, your condition might actually get somewhat worse.
When lying down, it is even easier for the stomach acid to enter the esophagus. So if your coughing or other eating-related chest symptoms get worse when lying down, you might have reflux.
Acid reflux is a common cause of coughing after eating.
It’s always important to consult with a doctor if you have a chronic cough. However, if the coughing is caused by reflux, by following the few simple tips listed above, you can do a lot to manage the condition.
Frequently asked questions
Occasional coughing after having a meal is not uncommon and can be normal. Sometimes the throat might be drier than usual or strong spices might irritate the throat and it might make you cough.
However, when coughing happens often, you have other symptoms, or you regularly cough after certain foods, it’s time to talk to a doctor!
Asthma, food allergy, or aspiration (when food accidentally gets into the lungs) are all possible causes of eating-related coughing fits.
Your other symptoms might help to identify the underlying cause, however, for a proper diagnosis you should talk to a doctor.