Why Do I Experience Shortness of Breath After Eating?

Shortness of breath after eating may be related to existing respiratory problems, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, as well as digestive conditions, like hiatal hernia and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It can also be a symptom of a severe food allergy (anaphylaxis) and indicate that food was accidentally inhaled into the respiratory system.

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, can feel like a tightness in your chest or the sense that you are suffocating. This can be alarming if it's new or starts to happen often.

This article will introduce you to common causes of trouble breathing after eating. It also will help you recognize 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 can be 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 with 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.

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. You will need medical observation and possible treatment if you have further reactions.

Mild allergy symptoms may occur due to a food allergy. An allergist can help diagnose a food allergy if it is the cause of your symptoms.

Recap

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening emergency. For many people, this severe reaction is caused by a food allergy. Every allergic reaction is different and common symptoms can include difficulty breathing, vomiting, 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 during or after a meal. This is caused by stomach acid that rises back up into the throat. The harsh burning feeling after eating may come with wheezing or trouble breathing.

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, stomach acid can move in the wrong direction.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) 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 include coughing, a hoarse voice, or hiccups.

Some lifestyle changes can help 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 or spicy foods.

COPD

COPD is a progressive and irreversible condition in the lungs. Smoking, or exposure to smoking, is a major cause of COPD.

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. Salt can cause people who have COPD to retain fluid, which may lead to swelling, increased blood pressure, and worsened 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.

Any acids that wash up into the airway are irritating to these tissues and can lead to an asthma attack. Additionally, 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

A hiatal hernia is a condition in which part of the stomach pushes up above the diaphragm. Symptoms, including heartburn, are similar to those seen with GERD. The condition can contribute to shortness of breath after eating.

There are many possible causes of hiatal hernia, including obesity and tobacco use. There also are different types of hernias that may develop.

Surgery is sometimes 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 after 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 possible causes.

Inhaling Food

You can become short of breath during or immediately after accidentally inhaling food or drink.

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

It's also not unusual for people who have GERD to inhale small amounts of stomach acid, typically while they're asleep.

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

Usually, food will come loose when you cough. But there can be complications, especially for people who have had other medical issues such as a stroke, which can weaken certain muscles and reflexes that help with swallowing and coughing.

Achalasia is a disorder of the esophagus that, among other things, makes it hard to swallow. It 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 contribute to trouble breathing at mealtime. See your healthcare provider to find out why you are having these issues and how to treat them.

If you're already having treatment for 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

Shortness of breath after eating can be related to respiratory problems, like asthma and COPD.

Additionally, conditions that affect the digestive tract—including GERD and hiatal hernia—can lead to shortness of breath after eating. A severe food allergy reaction, which is a medical emergency, can also be the cause.

If eating affects your breathing, talk to your healthcare provider so you can get a proper diagnosis. Most 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 sitting up straight help. If you use oxygen, make sure it is available. Severe symptoms can be life-threatening, so call 911 right away.

  • Which foods can trigger breathing problems?

    An anaphylactic reaction to certain foods 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?

    A heart condition can cause trouble breathing, chest pain, palpitating heart rhythms, dizziness, and fainting. Call 911 immediately if you have any of these symptoms.

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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.
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By Jeanette Bradley
Jeanette Bradley is a noted food allergy advocate and author of the cookbook, "Food Allergy Kitchen Wizardry: 125 Recipes for People with Allergies"