The respiratory and alimentary tract share a common passage, namely the throat (pharynx), and it is not uncommon for symptoms associated with one system to manifest in another. Coughing after eating is one such example as the cough reflex is usually only associated with respiratory tract conditions.

Causes of Coughing After Eating

Acid Reflux / GERD

  • This is one of the more common causes of coughing after eating, and is seen either in severe acid reflux or chronic acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease / GERD).
  • The rising stomach acid may travel as high as the pharynx, causing local irritation and triggering the cough reflex. In chronic cases, the recurrent irritation may lead to a condition known as LPR reflux (laryngopharyngeal reflux disease).

Allergies

  • Food-related allergies may trigger inflammation of the respiratory tract. This may result in copious mucus secretion and is usually associated with the ingestion of specific foods, like dairy, wheat, nuts and egg yolk.
  • In the upper respiratory tract, particularly the nasal cavity, rhinitis (runny nose), nasal congestion, sneezing or post nasal drip may be reported.
  • In the lower respiratory tract, mucus secretion and accumulation as well as airway hypersensitivity seen in conditions like asthma may also cause abnormal breathing sounds (typically wheezing) and dyspnea (shortness of breath).
  • It is not uncommon for no other symptoms to be present apart from the coughing that arises or aggravates after eating.
  • Anaphylaxis related to hypersensitivity to certain foods, like shellfish, results in an acute reaction that can be life threatening. Coughing after eating may be one of the first symptoms.

Tonsillitis and Pharyngitis

  • Coughing after eating may be seen in tonsillopharyngitis (tonsils and/or throat) where the inflamed throat lining is further irritated by food or drinks. Tonsillitis and pharyngitis often arises as a result of an infection and this may involve the entire respiratory tract, particularly the upper portions.
  • Typically a sore throat is reported and other signs and symptoms may also be present including a runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion, hoarse voice and fever.
  • Non-infectious causes of tonsillitis, like chronic necrotic tonsillitis, may also trigger coughing after eating.In these cases, small food particles may also be trapped in the crevasses and patients may cough up specks of decomposed and compressed food particles, that often resembles small grains of rice..

Dysphagia (Difficulty Swallowing)

  • Various causes of oropharyngeal dysphagia (difficulty swallowing due to pathology in the oropharynx) may result in coughing during or after eating.
  • Depending on the severity of the condition, patients may also complain of gagging when eating and regurgitation.
  • In esophageal causes of dysphagia, regurgitation may cause gagging and coughing during or immediately after eating.

Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on August 3, 2013