What's Causing Me to Cough After I Eat?

Have you ever started coughing after a meal? Perhaps your food went down the "wrong pipe." Coughing is the body's way of protecting against foreign materials and is usually triggered by an irritant.

People cough due to a variety of reasons, from infections to allergies. A random cough after a meal is probably no reason to worry. However, chronic coughing can be problematic, especially if you have an untreated or undiscovered health condition that is causing the problem.

Learn more about why certain conditions may cause coughing after eating and when to see a healthcare provider.

A person eating and coughing

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Asthma

Asthma occurs when there is a narrowing of the airway as a result of a trigger such as an allergen, toxin, exercise, virus, or cold weather. People with asthma may have a cough that keeps coming back.

They can also have other symptoms, including wheezing, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. If you are a person with asthma and experience coughing after eating, you could be ingesting an allergen. The most common food allergies are to:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

Food Allergies 

Food allergies occur when the body's immune system overreacts due to proteins in foods. Food allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe. In severe cases, anaphylaxis can occur, which is life-threatening if not treated.

Exposure to food allergens may cause watery eyes, postnasal drip, throat swelling, and an itchy, scratchy throat that can trigger a need to cough.

Mild Acid Reflux

Mild acid reflux is common and can occur from time to time in most people. While it's unknown exactly why people with acid reflux cough when stomach acid enters their esophagus, it may be that the backed-up food stimulates nerve endings and triggers a cough reflex, or you might be aspirating (choking) on a small amount of acid. Acid might also be irritating your throat, causing you to cough. This is more likely to happen after a meal. Some people find that certain foods trigger acid reflux.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition in which stomach acid rises into the esophagus, causing inflammation. It is a more severe form of acid reflux that occurs when your lower esophageal sphincter (a group of muscles at the low end of the esophagus that acts as a valve) does not close properly. Symptoms of GERD include regurgitation, heartburn, cough, difficulty swallowing, pain in the chest or abdomen, hoarseness, vomiting, bad breath, wheezing, and interrupted sleep.

Researchers from China have found that coughing after a meal is a predicator of gastroesophageal reflux-related cough (GERC). After eating, reflux can increase because contents of your meal and acids in your stomach that help digest food are being pushed back into your throat. You may feel the need to clear your throat. Sometimes it may feel like there is a lump in your throat or that food is stuck, which can also increase the need to cough.

Laryngopharyngeal reflux occurs when acid that has been pushed into the esophagus, enters the throat and voice box, and a person is more susceptible to coughing. Typically, this may happen after a person ingests common trigger foods, such as coffee, alcohol, and spicy foods.

Upper Respiratory Infections (URI)

An upper respiratory infection involves the nose, sinuses, pharynx, larynx, and large airways and is associated with coughing. Congestion and postnasal drip can result in a cough that lingers. Eating during this time can be difficult as it can contribute to the congestion in your throat, causing you to cough. In addition, certain foods can thicken phlegm by coating it, increasing congestion in people who are sensitive to them.

Aspiration Pneumonia

Aspiration pneumonia occurs when food, fluid, or other substances accidentally enter the lungs. This can occur after a meal when food enters the trachea (windpipe) and lungs. One of the symptoms is a cough.

On occasion, small amounts of food may go down the wrong pipe and as a result, a person will cough or gag to get it out. When this happens because of dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), a special diet may be recommended. Still, some experts urge for more quality evidence to support diet modifications.

Dysphagia

Dysphagia occurs when you have difficulty swallowing. Trouble swallowing can change how food moves through the upper digestive pathways. When dysphagia disrupts your ability to move chewed few from your mouth down your throat, it can cause aspiration (breathing food into the lungs) and choking (airway is blocked by food).

As a consequence, a person will cough. Dysphagia can be dangerous in people of older age and in children, especially those who have other neurological conditions.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

An occasional cough after eating is likely to be OK. However, if you cough regularly after eating a meal, you should see a healthcare provider. Additionally, if you have a medical condition such as uncontrolled GERD, dysphagia, or aspiration pneumonia, a visit to your healthcare provider is crucial. A provider can assess your condition and provide you with an individualized treatment plan.

Tips to Prevent Coughing After Eating

Once you find out the trigger, you'll be able to formulate a plan that works best for you to prevent coughing after eating. Some helpful tips may include:

  • Eat smaller meals and chew thoroughly.
  • Take medication for medical conditions, such as GERD and allergies.
  • Avoid allergic triggers and foods that irritate reflux.
  • Do not lie down after meals.

Summary

Certain conditions may contribute to coughing after meals. If you are aware of your triggers, avoiding them can help. However, if you recently started coughing after meals and do not know why, get examined by a healthcare provider. If you have an underlying health condition but feel as though it is not under control, your healthcare provider can help formulate a treatment plan that works for you.

A Word From Verywell

Coughing after meals can be annoying and irritating and, in certain instances, dangerous. Reach out to your healthcare provider if you recently started coughing after meals and don't know why. Most likely your cough is associated with something that is easily treatable. Anytime there is a pattern of symptoms, a workup from a medical professional is a good idea.


Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you stop a cough that tickles?

    The way to stop a cough that tickles will depend on its cause. Some home remedies may include avoiding triggers that cause asthma and allergic reactions, drinking water, taking decongestants, using a humidifier, and having honey, to name a few. A cough that persists should be discussed with a healthcare provider.

  • Is there a cure for GERD?

    Lifestyle changes, medications, and, in severe instances, surgeries can treat GERD. Depending on the severity of your disease, these types of treatments can control and even cure symptoms.

  • What food should you avoid when coughing after eating?

    Everyone responds differently to foods. If you have food allergies or sensitivities, avoiding foods could prevent coughing after eating. In addition, some people are sensitive to acidic and spicy foods or alcohol and caffeine. The best way to determine your trigger foods is to keep a food journal or try a temporary elimination diet.

  • What foods cause phlegm after eating?

    There is little scientific evidence to suggest that certain foods cause phlegm after eating. However, dairy products can coat phlegm and make it feel thicker in certain people.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food allergies.

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Diseases. Acid reflux (GER and GERD in adults).

  3. Lv HJ, Qiu ZM. Refractory chronic cough due to gastroesophageal reflux: Definition, mechanism and management. World J Methodol. 2015 Sep 26;5(3):149-56. doi: 10.5662/wjm.v5.i3.149

  4. Lai K, et. al. The predictive clinical features associated with a chronic cough that has a single underlying cause. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. 2021 Jan;9(1):426-432.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jaip.2020.06.066.

  5. Thomas M, Bomar PA. Upper Respiratory Tract Infection. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532961/

  6. O'Keeffe ST. Use of modified diets to prevent aspiration in oropharyngeal dysphagia: is current practice justified? BMC Geriatr. 2018;18(1):167. doi:10.1186/s12877-018-0839-7

  7. Speyer R, Cordier R, Farneti D, et al. White paper by the European society for swallowing disorders: screening and non-instrumental assessment for dysphagia in adults. Dysphagia. 2021;1-17. doi:10.1007/s00455-021-10283-7

By Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN
Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist.