What is mucus and what is phlegm?
Mucus is a fluid produced in many parts of the body, it covers and protects the most important organs from drying out, dust, infections, etc. Mucus contains enzymes that protect these organs from infections.
The mucus produced by the respiratory system is called phlegm.
When we have flu or cold, often an excessive amount of phlegm is produced. We cough to get rid of the extra amount of phlegm.
However, you can have excessive amounts of phlegm in your throat even if you don’t have cold or flu. Some people experience this after having a meal.
What causes phlegm after eating?
In case of eating-related excessive phlegm production and chronic coughing, doctors tend to look for the following problems:
- reflux (both acid reflux and silent reflux)
- food sensitivity
Phlegm and reflux
We talk about acid reflux when the contents of your stomach can flow back up into the esophagus. This might make you cough and your body might respond to it with excessive phlegm production.
These are the most common symptoms of acid reflux:
- heartburn, chest pain
- sour taste in the mouth
Symptoms usually get worse when lying down.
It is often silent reflux that causes coughing and phlegm production after eating.
Turns out it is not easy to diagnose reflux-related phlegm production, since many people who have phlegm after eating don’t produce the typical symptoms of acid reflux listed above.
Doctors might use upper endoscopy or a 24h esophageal pH monitoring to diagnose the problem. However, before doing such procedures they might suggest medications or dietary changes to see if your symptoms get better.
Phlegm and food sensitivity
It might not seem obvious, but certain foods can also cause phlegm production and chronic cough.
In case of food sensitivity, you might have gastrointestinal symptoms, like chest pain or diarrhea, besides coughing and phlegm.
Milk and milk allergy is probably the most common and well-known type of food sensitivity that can cause excessive phlegm.
However, besides milk and dairy products, there are a number of other foods that might trigger mucus production:
Diagnosing food sensitivities can be tricky because of the wide range of symptoms and types of trigger foods.
Coughing dark, smelly mucus after eating
Coughing up smelly, dark, or greenish mucus after eating might indicate a condition called aspiration from dysphagia. In plain English, this means a difficulty of swallowing (dysphagia) causes food or drink to enter the lungs by accident (aspiration).
In most cases, the body can get rid of the foreign particles by coughing. However, sometimes it can’t, which leads to a more serious condition, called aspiration pneumonia.
In this case, the bacteria on the swallowed food might cause more serious symptoms. Chest pain, fever, shortness of breath, wheezing can occur besides coughing up mucus.
How to reduce phlegm buildup after eating?
No matter whether you have reflux or food sensitivity, there are a number of OTC medications that might help to mitigate the symptoms, like excessive phlegm production. If your doctor recommends medications, be sure to take them as prescribed.
However, keep in mind that medications only treat the symptoms, not the root cause.
If your symptoms are related to eating, chances are there are certain trigger foods that cause these symptoms. Finding these trigger foods and limiting your intake or completely eliminating them from your diet might go a long way in helping to reduce the discomfort you feel after meals.
There are also some general recommendations that often help on eating-related problems:
- try to limit the amount you eat, overeating often causes issues
- eat less, but more often
- chew your food well
- try not to eat 2-3 hours before going to sleep
- avoid foods with high fat or sugar content
With proper eating habits, your condition might improve significantly.
Coughing up phlegm after eating can be a really unpleasant experience. While finding out the cause of the problem and the appropriate treatment can be complicated, you can do a lot to at least help and sometimes completely eliminate your symptoms by finding out what foods are causing the problem.
Using a food diary can be a big help in this. After every meal write down what exactly you ate and if you had any symptoms. After a few weeks, you might see a pattern and know which foods are likely to trigger the problems.
Once you know your trigger foods, changing your diet can have a positive effect on your condition.