Coughing after eating

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The most common causes of chronic coughing after having a meal are acid reflux, food allergies, and asthma.

Less common causes are chronic laryngitis, respiratory infections, swallowing difficulties, and aspiration from dysphagia.

Knowing which foods cause you to cough and avoiding them helps to relieve the symptom.

However, if you are always coughing after eating, make sure to consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis. Managing your diet can prevent coughing after eating, but probably won’t solve the underlying medical problem that triggers coughing.

Why do we cough?

Coughing is a protective mechanism of our body, it helps keep our throats clear from foreign particles, bacteria, or any other irritants.

The speed of coughing is around 50 miles per hour, it is surprisingly effective in clearing the airways and lungs.

A great video by the American Lung Association explaining why we cough.

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.

Occasional coughs happen to all of us every now and then, however, a persistent cough (longer than 8 weeks), or a cough that has some sort of a “trigger event” is not normal.

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.

Coughing

Why do I cough after I eat?

There are a few conditions that cause coughing after eating:

According to these studies, the most common reason for chronic cough in non-smoking patients is acid reflux.

Let’s take a closer look at eating-related coughing caused by acid reflux.

Why does acid reflux cause coughing after eating?

Acid reflux happens when the contents of the stomach can move back into the esophagus.

There are two main theories 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.

Other typical symptoms of acid reflux:

The most common acid reflux symptom is heartburn, a burning sensation in the middle of the chest. However, many acid reflux sufferrers who cough after eating do not experience heartburn at all.

According to this study, up to 75% of people suffering from acid reflux coughs show no gastrointestinal symptoms.

How to diagnose acid reflux 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
  • wheezing
  • stomach problems – stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting

If you think food allergy triggers coughing while eating or shortly after eating, make sure to avoid the food you think triggered the allergic reaction and talk to an allergist.

A rare, but very serious, symptom of food allergy is anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical help!

Asthma

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)

Sulfites are commonly found in:

  • wine, beer
  • dried fruits
  • acidic fruit juices
  • shrimp

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

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.

Swallowing training and dietary changes might help to manage this condition.

Aspiration from dysphagia

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

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.

How to treat coughing after eating?

If you have a persistent cough that happens after having a meal, you can do a lot to manage this condition.

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:

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.

Eat less, slower, and more often

Eating too much or too fast can easily lead to an acid reflux attack.

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.

Lie down

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.

Final thoughts

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.