Shortness of breath after eating

Several health conditions can trigger shortness of breath after eating. GERD or acid reflux is probably the most common one, but food allergy, asthma, COPD, and other conditions might also be the culprit.

Common triggers are alcohol, sugar, soda, and milk. However, any food that causes allergy might be a trigger, just like simply eating too much.

Why do you get shortness of breath after eating?

Shortness of breath also known as dyspnea is a feeling of tightness in your chest, suffocation, and difficult breathing. You feel like despite inspiring air forcefully into your lungs, you are still breathless and you are not inhaling sufficient air.

Possible health issues causing shortness of breath after eating may be related to the:

  • lungs (pleural)
  • heart (cardiac)
  • organs other than the heart (non-cardiac), e.g. the esophagus, stomach, or muscles

Depending on the underlying medical problem, different foods might cause shortness of breath after eating:

Shortness of breath after drinking alcohol

Alcohol depresses your nervous system, which causes shortness of breath after drinking alcoholic beverages, especially those alcohols which have a high tannin content (like wine).

Wine, grapes, barrel
You might feel out of breath after drinking too much wine.

Drinking any kind of liquid helps to clear away all mucus and contaminants from your airways. However, due to alcohol misuse, you may feel shortness of breath because of obstructed mucus in the airways or inhaled contaminants.

Shortness of breath after heavy drinking

Excessive alcohol use can cause trouble breathing for the following reasons:

  • Alcohol misuse causes low red blood cells count (anemia). Common symptoms of anemia are shortness of breath, fatigue, and pale skin.
  • Too much alcohol slows down breathing.
  • Alcohol has a clinical correlation with other diseases which cause shortness of breath like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

To avoid breathing problems after alcohol, you should:

  • avoid excessive drinking
  • take exercises regularly
  • avoid alcohol if you’re having severe shortness of breath
  • eat healthy foods

Shortness of breath after eating sugar

Sweets, chocolates, and other high-sugar foods might significantly increase the blood sugar level.

Experiencing breathlessness after high-sugar foods indicates that the blood sugar levels are very high.

For diabetic patients, this might be the sign of diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition in which insulin levels are low but blood glucose levels are very high. This needs emergency medical treatment because the patient is at risk of going into a diabetic coma. (Non-diabetic ketoacidosis is rare and can be caused by starvation.)

Shortness of breath due to high blood sugar levels can be differentiated from other causes by its fruity taste or smell on breathing.

Get Off Sugar

Besides trouble breathing, other common symptoms are:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • blurred vision
  • seizures
  • unconsciousness

If you are a diabetic, obese, or have a family history of diabetes, you must keep tight control of your blood sugar levels. Avoid artificial sweeteners and foods having high sugar content.

Can low blood sugar cause shortness of breath?

Both excessively high or low sugar levels are medical emergencies. Low blood sugar level which is known as hypoglycemia affects lungs function and causes shortness of breath.

Other symptoms of hypoglycemia are:

  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • thirst
  • weakness
  • dry lips and mouth
  • abdominal pain
  • unconsciousness

All diabetic people must carry biscuits, chocolates, or juices with them to prevent severe hypoglycemia and take their meals strictly on time.

Out of breath after drinking soda and carbonated drinks

Soda with ice
Sugar, gas, artificial sweeteners can all contribute to breathing issues after drinking soda.

Soda and carbonated drinks may cause trouble breathing for several reasons:

Sugar & caffeine

High sugar and caffeine content in sodas may increase heart rate and rapid breathing.

As mentioned above, shortness of breath due to high blood sugar levels might be a serious health risk for people with diabetes.

You must consult a doctor if you feel shortness of breath after having these drinks.

Gas bubbles

These drinks produce gas bubbles in your stomach which causes tightness of the chest, difficult breathing, and exacerbates symptoms of asthma and COPD.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame are added to these drinks to reduce the number of calories, especially in diet sodas.

Aspartame suppresses respiratory activity which can cause shortness of breath.

Lungs also get affected by these artificial sweeteners.

Shortness of breath after drinking caffeine

The two most common causes of breathlessness after consuming caffeine are food allergy and heart palpitations.

Caffeine allergy

Some people might experience an allergic reaction after drinking tea, energy drinks, or coffee, due to being sensitive to caffeine.

While the most common allergic reactions are mild, such as itching, rashes, hives, in more severe cases the respiratory system is also affected.

Caffeine may start an anaphylactic reaction in the body which leads to shortness of breath.

The most severe symptom of food allergies is anaphylaxis, which requires immediate help.

Heart issues


Caffeine can also stimulate the heart, you may feel palpitations and shallow breathing which in turn affects the decision making and focusing of the brain.

This might also be an allergic reaction or a sign of drinking too much caffeine.

People who have allergies to caffeine must eliminate caffeine from their foods to avoid a serious anaphylactic reaction.

Shortness of breath after drinking cold water

Sometimes drinking cold water activates cold receptors of the skin. In response, you may feel shortness of breath.

Cold water-induced shortness of breath lasts for at least one minute and relieves automatically.

If shortness of breath after drinking cold water persists even after one minute, you must consult a physician for proper evaluation and treatment of the underlying cause.

Following precautions can avoid shortness of breath caused by cold water:

  • drink small sips
  • use lukewarm water
  • do not drink immediately after exercise

Sometimes excessive drinking of water or other fluids may cause shortness of breath. The ability of your body to absorb sodium is reduced due to excessive fluid content in the body which induces shortness of breath.

Shortness of breath after drinking milk

Glass of milk
Allergy is a common cause of breathing problems after drinking milk, but full fat cow milk can also trigger GERD.

Milk is a common food allergen. Shortness of breath after drinking milk usually occurs:

  • due to the immune response to the proteins in milk or dairy products
  • acid reflux or GERD

Allergic reactions

Casein and whey are the two main proteins present in milk. These proteins can cause an immune-mediated allergic reaction.

According to this study, eliciting doses are low(starting from 0.3mg of protein) and symptoms might be severe, like breathing problems.

Milk allergy also narrows the airways which lead to difficulty breathing.

People with a milk allergy must strictly avoid milk especially after eating peanuts and nuts.

Following are the common signs and symptoms of milk allergy:

  • coughing and shortness of breath
  • sneezing and runny nose
  • abdominal pain
  • watery eyes
  • itching and tingling sensation in lips and tongue
  • vomiting
  • wheezing
  • hives

GERD or acid reflux

As discussed below, shortness of breath is a possible (albeit not the most common) symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

GERD is often triggered by hard-to-digest fatty foods and full fat cow milk might be a trigger for some people.

If GERD is your trigger, you might also experience pain around the center of the chest (heartburn), regurgitation, a sour taste in the mouth, or coughing.

Can overeating cause shortness of breath?

Some people have trouble breathing after eating too much. The most common cause of this is acid reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), another possible cause is COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

GERD and breathlessness

Your breathing problems may actually be caused by your stomach, not asthma
A short but informative video about GERD and breathing problems. Duration: 2:29.

GERD, the chronic form of acid reflux, is very common, it affects about 20% of the population in the US.

GERD is a disorder in the lower esophageal sphincter located at the lower end of your esophagus.

During acid reflux episodes stomach acids and partially digested food travel back into your esophagus causing a burning sensation around the middle of the chest, called heartburn.

Stomach content irritates the nerve endings of the esophagus. A message is transmitted to the brain, and it responds by narrowing the airway passage, thus producing shortness of breath.

Shortness of breath can occur in GERD due to aspiration of stomach acid and food contents into your airway passage.

Eliminate acid reflux offer

Heartburn or GERD is a common cause of shortness of breath after eating, especially in asthmatic people.

COPD and difficulty breathing

COPD is a disease of the lungs in which air becomes entrapped in air sacs and your body is unable to move that air out of the lungs.

Symptoms of COPD like coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness worsen after eating too much, because:

  • A full stomach puts pressure on the lungs, and this could cause breathing problems if the lungs are not healthy.
  • Compared to healthy people, people with COPD require about 10 calories more to breathe. After large meals digestion needs a lot of energy, which contributes to COPD symptoms like struggle to breathe and fatigue.

Some tips to avoid COPD symptoms:

  • take small meals
  • avoid eating while having shortness of breath
  • do not lie flat after eating a meal
  • take a rest after eating a meal
  • eat slowly
  • do not overeat

Shortness of breath immediately after eating

When experiencing symptoms right after eating (within a few minutes), food allergy is a common cause.

Food allergy is an immune reaction to proteins present in food (while food intolerance is a digestive problem) and might cause shortness of breath right after eating specific foods.

Food allergy affects several systems of the body including the skin, the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts.

Typical food allergy symptoms are mild:

  • excessive sneezing with nasal discharge
  • irritability
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • wheezing
  • eczema
  • dermatitis and flushing of the skin

However, in some cases, allergic reactions might cause severe breathing problems. This condition is called anaphylaxis and it requires immediate help!

Risk factors of food allergy are asthma and previous episodes of food allergy.

People can be allergic to a wide variety of foods, however, these are the most common allergens:

  • peanuts
  • nuts
  • sea-foods
  • milk
  • eggs

Final thoughts

If you often experience shortness of breath after eating various foods, it is possibly due to gastroesophageal reflux disease, consult your gastroenterologistfor proper evaluation and treatment.

If shortness of breath occurs right after eating, food allergy might be a possible cause. Avoid all foods which contain allergens to prevent a severe anaphylactic reaction!

If short of breath is associated with chest pain at rest or on exertion, consult your cardiologist. Cardiac causes must be ruled out first by ECG and cardiac markers before starting treatment.

Avoid all foods that cause shortness of breath like artificial sweeteners, sodas, carbonated drinks, and caffeine.

Use lukewarm water and take a small quantity of water at a time to avoid shortness of breath.

This article has been written by:

Dr. Shama Nosheen

Department of Medicine and Surgery,
Nishtar Medical University and Hospital