Why Do I Experience Shortness of Breath After Eating?

Some people find they have shortness of breath or wheezing after eating. There are quite a few reasons why this may happen. Some of them may occur suddenly, as is the case if you inhale food.

You may feel a tightness in your chest or the sense that you are suffocating. This shortness of breath, or dyspnea, often causes alarm if it's new or starts to happen often but you don't know why. You may not even be sure what shortness of breath feels like if you have never experienced it.

Shortness of breath causes also can be related to existing medical problems. Feeling short of breath after eating can happen if you have a lung condition, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can also be a symptom of a severe food allergy reaction called anaphylaxis.

This article will introduce you to common causes for why you may have trouble breathing after eating. It also will help you to know when your symptoms require medical attention.

Causes of shortness of breath after eating

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction. Shortness of breath after eating is usually the first symptom. It can occur within minutes after you eat something you're allergic to. Shellfish, milk, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts are among the most common foods to cause allergies.

Other symptoms, like hives (urticaria) and swelling of the lips and airway, usually happen when you have this severe allergic reaction. That's not always the case, though. Some people might only have breathing symptoms and may feel like they're having an asthma attack instead.

If your symptoms are severe, it's critical that you seek medical attention immediately.

If you have food allergies and feel like you're having a severe asthma attack after eating, take action right away. If you have one, use a prescribed epinephrine auto-injector, such as Epi-Pen.

Epinephrine will help with both anaphylaxis and an asthma attack. It won't cause harm if you end up using it unnecessarily. On the other hand, an asthma inhaler won't help if the problem is anaphylaxis.

After using your auto-injector, lie down and have someone call 911. A doctor will need to watch you for potential further reactions.

Mild allergy symptoms also may occur because of a food allergy. If you've not experienced a food allergy before, an allergist can diagnosis the cause of your symptoms.

Recap

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening emergency. In many people, this severe reaction is caused by a food allergy and happens after eating. Common symptoms will include difficulty breathing, swollen lips, and a sudden itchy rash often known as hives. Don't wait to call 911.

Heartburn

People with heartburn may feel short of breath or start to wheeze following a meal. This is because of stomach acid that rises back up into the throat.

A main cause of heartburn is weakness in the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This group of muscles acts as a valve to keep stomach contents from going back up the esophagus and into the throat and upper airways.

If the LES isn't working right, the stomach acid can move in the wrong direction.

The harsh burning feeling may come with wheezing or trouble breathing. This is also a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can develop if you have heartburn often. People who have GERD sometimes say they feel like they have something stuck in their throat.

Apart from trouble breathing, less common GERD symptoms can happen too. They include coughing, a hoarse voice, or a case of the hiccups.

Some lifestyle changes can help to reduce your heartburn episodes. They include losing weight, avoiding alcohol, and not smoking. You also may want to limit your exposure to foods that can lead to heartburn, such as fried foods.

COPD

COPD is a progressive and irreversible condition in the lungs. It is quite common in older people. Smoking, or exposure to smoking, is a major cause of COPD, but there are others.

Over time, the airway and lung damage from COPD makes it harder for air to flow in and out. Limited airflow makes it harder to breathe and can lead to chronic cough and chest tightness.

People with COPD may feel short of breath after eating because large meals take up significant space in the chest and stomach area. This puts pressure on the lungs and diaphragm, the strong muscle that separates the organs in your chest from your abdomen and assists with breathing.

Large meals also take more energy to digest, which can compound the fatigue that those with COPD already experience.

Eating smaller meals more often can help. So can changes in your diet, like using less salt. This is because salt can cause people who have COPD to retain fluid. This may lead to swelling and increased blood pressure, and add to your trouble breathing.

If you have COPD and you are using supplemental oxygen, be sure to use it when you're eating too.

GERD-Related Asthma

Aside from the acid reflux that can occur with GERD, the condition is also often associated with asthma. The two issues often coexist, with each one contributing to the other.

The acids that wash up into the airway when you have GERD are extremely irritating to tissues outside of the stomach. This unpleasant acid reflux can trigger not just shortness of breath, but an asthma attack in those with the condition.

At the same time, asthma can cause the LES to relax, making it easier for stomach acid to rise into the throat.

Changes in your diet, like avoiding coffee or acidic foods like tomatoes, may help. You also may want to try eating smaller meals, and avoid eating late. Talk to your healthcare provider about medications that may relieve your symptoms, such as Pepcid (famotidine) or Prilosec (omeprazole).

Hiatal Hernia

The symptoms of a hiatal hernia, including heartburn, are similar to those seen with GERD. However, they happen because part of your stomach pushes up above the diaphragm. This, too, can contribute to shortness of breath after you eat.

There are many possible causes for hiatal hernia, including obesity and tobacco use. There also are different types of hernias that may develop, some more common than others.

Surgery is often recommended to repair a hiatal hernia in order to prevent acid reflux and help with shortness of breath. Researchers who reviewed six studies on a specific type of hiatal hernia called paraesophageal hernia found there was a clear breathing benefit from the surgery.

Recap

It may not seem obvious, but the reasons for feeling short of breath after eating may be related to a digestive disorder rather than a breathing problem. Heartburn, hiatal hernia, and GERD are all possibilities.

Inhaling Food

You can become short of breath during or immediately after accidentally inhaling food or drink. It's also not unusual for people who have GERD to inhale small amounts of stomach acid, typically while they're asleep.

This is called airway aspiration. It means that something has gone into the trachea or another part of the respiratory system, instead of the esophagus that leads to your digestive system.

If inhaled food feels like it's stuck and is blocking your airway, call 911. You also may need to try the Heimlich maneuver to try and dislodge food blocking your airway.

Usually, food will come loose when you cough. But there can be complications, especially in people who have had other medical issues such as a stroke.

Achalasia is a disorder of the esophagus that, among other things, makes it hard to swallow. It is not the same condition as GERD, but both can cause chronic aspiration. A wet-sounding cough right after eating is a common symptom.

In some cases, people can develop aspiration pneumonia due to infection from the inhaled substance. Antibiotics, or even hospitalization and breathing assistance, may be needed.

When to Get Medical Attention

Trouble breathing, for any reason, is a serious medical concern.

If you have shortness of breath after eating and you have a known food allergy, use your Epi-Pen or other medication and call 911. You may be having a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

Other health problems, such as COPD or GERD, may also be related to your trouble breathing at mealtime. See your healthcare provider to find out exactly why you are having respiratory issues and how to treat them.

If you've already been diagnosed with a condition known to cause breathing difficulties, but you still experience shortness of breath after eating, still see your provider. You may need a change in your treatment plan or additional lifestyle modifications.

Summary

People who become short of breath after they eat often think the problem lies in their respiratory system. This is a common experience with asthma and COPD, for example.

But conditions that affect the digestive tract—including GERD and hiatal hernia—can lead to airway problems that people often describe as shortness of breath. A severe food allergy reaction, which is a medical emergency, can also be to blame.

Be sure to mention this symptom to your healthcare provider so you can get a proper diagnosis. Note that some conditions that cause shortness of breath have a better prognosis when treated early on.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you reduce shortness of breath after eating?

    Rest and position changes can help. If you use oxygen, make sure it is available. But any cases of severe symptoms require calling 911, as they may be life-threatening.

  • Which foods trigger breathing problems?

    People with severe allergies can have an anaphylactic reaction to certain foods, which can cause shortness of breath within minutes. Common foods that trigger this reaction include shellfish, peanuts, eggs, and cow's milk.

  • How can you tell if your shortness of breath is heart related?

    If trouble breathing is due to a heart condition, there usually are other symptoms. They include chest pain, palpitating heart rhythms, dizziness, and fainting. Call 911 immediately if you think your trouble breathing is due to a heart problem.

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