The upper portion of your digestive and respiratory systems both course through your throat and share common nerve pathways. As a result, eating may directly or indirectly stimulate coughing after eating. Acid reflux, swallowing disorders and food allergies are among the possible causes. The timing and duration of your cough and associated symptoms can help distinguish among the possible culprits. If you consistently cough after eating, see your doctor to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) refers to a chronic condition in which stomach contents escape into the esophagus or higher in the throat, causing symptoms and/or tissue damage. Common symptoms include heartburn and a sour taste in the mouth, which typically occur after eating when the stomach is full. GERD can also potentially trigger coughing after eating in several ways.
Refluxed stomach contents can irritate the esophagus and trigger coughing due to shared nerve pathways between the esophagus and lungs. Less commonly, minute amounts of refluxed stomach contents travel far enough up the throat to enter the upper airways of the lungs. This inflames the airways and stimulates the cough reflex. In people with both GERD and asthma, reflux may trigger airway constriction, leading to coughing and wheezing after meals.
Difficult or painful swallowing, known medically as dysphagia, may cause coughing during and after eating. Dysphagia can occur with a wide variety of disorders, including stroke, neck surgery, Parkinson disease, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig disease, brain stem or neck tumors, and diabetic nerve damage, among others. Difficulty swallowing can lead to stomach contents entering the lungs in small or large quantities. Small quantities irritate the airways and typically cause frequent coughing, which may be worse after eating. Entry of large amounts of stomach contents into the lungs causes a serious condition known as aspiration pneumonia, which can be fatal.
Food allergies affect an estimated 6 percent of children and 3 to 4 percent of adults, according to an October 2009 article in "Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Research." Allergies to milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish account for the overwhelming majority of food allergies.
Respiratory symptoms associated with a typical allergic reaction typically occur in conjunction with skin and/or digestive symptoms, such as hives, itchiness, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Respiratory symptoms -- such as coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing -- often signals a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Immediate emergency treatment is needed if you suspect a food allergy and experience symptoms that could indicate anaphylaxis.
Warnings and Precautions
See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience coughing after eating. Your symptoms and their timing, along with a physical examination and tests -- such as x-rays, allergy testing or looking at the esophagus with a optical scope -- can aid in making a diagnosis. Treatment varies depending on the cause of your cough.
Seek emergency medical care if you experience difficulty breathing or symptoms that might signal an anaphylactic allergic reaction to food.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.