Phlegm in throat and coughing up mucus after eating is more common than most people would think. When there is no obvious reason for this condition, silent reflux is often the culprit.
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 against 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 a cold or flu. Some people experience this after having a meal.
Why do you get phlegm after eating certain foods?
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
Other possible causes:
Studies (1, 2, 3) show that reflux is a common cause of mucus and phlegmy cough after eating.
Foods that cause phlegm and mucus after eating
Foods that are likely to cause either reflux or an allergic reaction are the most common triggers.
Foods that often cause reflux:
- greasy, oily foods
- high-sugar foods
- alcohol, coffee, soda
- certain fruits and vegetables (e.g. citrus fruits, tomato, onion)
Common allergy foods:
- tree nuts, peanuts
- fish, shellfish
Albeit these are the most common foods that trigger reflux or allergy, other foods might also trigger symptoms. Simply eating too much or too fast increases the risk of reflux, and – even though not very common – people can be allergic to a wide variety of foods.
Phlegm after eating oily food
The most likely cause of phlegm and mucus after oily or fatty foods is silent reflux.
Such foods are hard to digest, they stay longer in the stomach, increase stomach acid secretion and make reflux episodes more likely.
Common trigger foods are:
- junk food, fast food
- french fries
- fried food
- red meat
Coughing mucus after eating spicy food
Many people experience mucus cough and phlegmy throat after spicy foods, however, symptoms may not be triggered by the spice.
Spicy foods often cause nasal symptoms (dripping, congestion) for those, who suffer from vasomotor rhinitis.
A more common condition that can make you cough up mucus is silent reflux.
It is still debated whether spicy foods trigger reflux (1, 2) or not (3, 4). Looks like a small amount of spice helps digestion and inhibits reflux, but too much spice can probably trigger symptoms.
However, most spicy foods are high in fat or oil, it is also easy to eat too much of such food. All of these are risk factors of reflux.
If spicy food is making you cough or phlegmy, try eating smaller portions and cut back your fat consumption.
Phlegm after eating chocolate
Sugar is another risk factor for reflux. Sweets like chocolate are not recommended to acid reflux sufferers as they are likely to trigger symptoms.
This study by the University of Michigan examined the relationship between chocolate and reflux. They found that the serotonin released from the small intestine after eating chocolate can make it easier for stomach acids to enter the esophagus.
The study also found that serotonin blockers, like granisetron, might relieve the symptoms.
Wet cough after eating
A cough that produces mucus or phlegm is called wet cough or productive cough.
Common eating-related causes of wet cough are:
- Silent reflux: Often happens after greasy food or eating too much, might also experience a sour taste in the mouth. Can get worse when lying down.
- Food allergy: Coughing usually starts right after or within minutes after eating. Itchy throat, swelling, or skin problems are also common symptoms.
Throat congestion after eating
Throat congestion is a common symptom of both food allergies and silent reflux. Sinusitis might also be the cause.
Throat congestion (also called postnasal drip) happens when nasal mucus drips down and sticks to the back of the throat.
Normally such drips mix with saliva and you swallow it without noticing it. However, when some condition makes the body produce excess mucus, especially if the mucus is thick then these drips get stuck in the back of the throat.
People with throat congestion often experience:
- sore throat
- wet cough
- runny nose, sneezing
- constantly clearing the throat
Throwing up phlegm after eating
Several conditions can trigger vomiting after eating. Infections, spoiled food, intense coughing, sometimes even reflux and make people throw up.
Phlegm and mucus in vomit might come from the stomach or the respiratory system. The latter not only includes the lungs, but the throat, mouth, and nose.
People with postnasal drip often find phlegm and mucus in their vomit.
Two common causes of throwing up phlegm after eating are:
- silent reflux
- sinusitis (sinus infection, caused by a virus)
Phlegm and silent 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.
Laryngopharyngeal reflux (or silent reflux) is similar to acid reflux, but in this case, digestive juices can travel all the way up to the throat and voice box. This is common in infants, but adults also can have silent reflux.
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.
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 get rid of phlegm in throat after eating?
No matter whether you have reflux or food sensitivity, several OTC medications might help to relieve 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 a food allergy is causing you excessive phlegm, you need to avoid the foods you are allergic to.
If your symptoms are related to eating, chances are certain trigger foods 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.
Some general recommendations often help with 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.
What foods can help with reflux-triggered phlegm?
There are several different reasons why reflux might trigger phlegm production:
Too much acid
Eating too much acidic food, like oranges, pineapples or certain vegetables can trigger acid reflux for some people.
Fatty and sugary foods also aggravate stomach acid production and might cause problems.
Probiotics can help digestion, buttermilk and some yogurts naturally contain probiotics. If you are after a more powerful and convenient solution, you can try probiotic supplements, which contain high quantities of good bacteria.
Too little acid
Strange as it may sound, low stomach acid levels can also cause acid reflux.
The reason for this is slow digestion and decreased gut motility. You might want to check out our article about constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux for more info about this.
Many people find that a small amount of apple cider vinegar before having a meal helps to avoid reflux symptoms.
If you don’t like the taste (or smell) of apple cider vinegar, you can try it in an extract capsule form.
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 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.