If you have felt short of breath after finishing a meal, you may be wondering what causes it and whether you should be concerned. Feeling shortness of breath after eating can be distressing, but is it dangerous? Not always. Common causes of shortness of breath after eating include acid reflux, food allergies, or inhaling food particles. Certain medical conditions such as COPD, asthma, and heart failure can also contribute to difficulties with breathing after eating. Read on to learn about the different causes of shortness of breath after eating and when to speak with a doctor about this condition.
Causes of shortness of breath after eating:
Heartburn, acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
If you are experiencing heartburn, a common symptom of acid reflux, it may cause you to feel short of breath or wheezy after eating. Why does this happen? When stomach acid rises from up from the stomach through the esophagus, the pipe that connects your stomach and your mouth, it can cause breathing difficulties.
Symptoms of acid reflux include:
- burning in the chest
- indigestion-like pain
- an acidic taste in your mouth
- difficulty breathing
- pain in the abdomen
- throat clearing
If you have acid reflux that occurs more than twice a week, you may be diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The condition is very common; a systematic review found that the prevalence of GERD among adults in North America ranged from 18.1 to 27.8% (Sandhu & Fass, 2018).
Food allergies and anaphylaxis
Being allergic to certain foods is more common than you might think. According to a recent survey, at least 10% of adults in the United States have food allergies (Gupta et al., 2019). However, you need to be aware that while some food allergies or intolerances may cause a minor reaction such as hives, food allergies can also result in anaphylaxis—a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- shortness of breath
- a lump in your throat
- tightness in your throat
- difficulty swallowing
- nausea or vomiting
- swelling on the skin
- swollen eyelids
- a hoarse voice
- pain in the abdomen
- rapid heart rate
- dizziness or fainting
- drop in blood pressure
- a slow pulse
- cardiac arrest
If you experience symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 911, or go immediately to the nearest emergency room. Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention. If you have severe allergies, you should always carry an EpiPen with you, and be ready to administer it if you recognize the symptoms of a severe allergic reaction.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
COPD is a progressive form of lung disease that causes chronic shortness of breath, wheezing, frequent coughing and tightness in the chest. More than 15 million Americans suffer from COPD (American Lung Association, n.d.).
Symptoms of COPD:
- Frequent wheezing
- Chronic coughing
- Feeling short of breath while doing everyday activities
- Being unable to breathe deeply
- Excessive fatigue
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Producing a lot of mucus
- Blue lips or fingernails
Another source of shortness of breath after eating is inhaling tiny particles of food, this is called pulmonary aspiration, which leads to pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia occurs when you inhale either food or liquid. When this happens, it can cause an infection inside your lungs. Usually, when someone is healthy, they can cough up the food; however, this is not always the case for individuals with conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia:
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- difficulty swallowing
- bad breath
- a painful cough
- coughing up bloody phlegm
Can a full stomach cause shortness of breath?
Yes, having a full stomach can cause shortness of breath. This is especially true for people who suffer from COPD and asthma.
When you have COPD or asthma, having a full stomach can increase breathing difficulties. If that is the case for you, eating smaller, more frequent meals may provide relief.
How to treat shortness of breath after eating?
Determining the proper treatment for shortness of breath after eating depends on knowing the cause of it.
Heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD
Common treatments for heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD that may reduce shortness of breath after eating include:
- taking OTC medications such as Pepcid or Prilosec
- eating smaller, more frequent meals
- avoiding tight clothing
- not lying down within a few hours after a meal
- quitting smoking
- reducing intake of foods and drinks that trigger acid reflux, such as chocolate, alcohol, coffee, peppermint, citrus fruits, onions, garlic, fried foods, tomatoes, and spicy foods.
COPD and asthma
According to the COPD foundation, there are several things asthma and COPD sufferers can do to help reduce the chances of experiencing shortness of breath from eating:
- eat more slowly
- choose foods with a lower sugar content
- stick to softer foods that do not require as much chewing
- restrict foods that cause bloating and abdominal discomfort (i.e. beans, raw fruits and vegetables).
- avoid lying down right after eating
- do not eat while feeling short of breath because it can trap gas, causing further difficulties with breathing
If food allergies are likely causing your shortness of breath after eating, look into the following:
- allergy testing to determine specific food triggers
- avoiding foods that cause allergies
- antihistamine medications
- carrying an EpiPen in case of anaphylaxis
How do you know if your shortness of breath is heart-related?
Occasionally shortness of breath can be caused by a heart condition, such as heart failure or heart attack. Shortness of breath due to heart problems arises when the heart is having difficulty filling and emptying, which causes pressure around the blood vessels surrounding your lungs (Bozkurt & Mann, 2014).
Symptoms of heart failure include:
- difficulty breathing when lying down
- waking up with shortness of breath
- coughing when lying down
- needing to prop yourself up with pillows to sleep comfortably
- swelling of the legs or ankles
- unusual fatigue during activities
- weight gain
When should I be concerned about shortness of breath?
Occasional shortness of breath is not usually a cause for concern. But if the shortness of breath that occurs after eating is causing significant distress, it’s time to seek help from a doctor.
If you experience shortness of breath and any of the following symptoms are greatly distressing, or occur for 30 minutes or longer, you should seek medical attention (American Lung Association, 2021).
These symptoms require medical attention:
- shortness of breath with swelling in your feet or ankles
- trouble breathing while lying down
- shortness of breath with a high fever
- fever or chills with a cough
- ongoing wheezing
- swelling in your throat or face
- blue tint to lips or fingers
- pain or pressure in the chest
- pain down your arm
When to see a doctor?
While occasional shortness of breath may not be a cause for concern, certain causes of shortness of breath after eating are signs of underlying disease or are a sign of a medical emergency.
And even if the problem is not an emergency, a doctor can administer various tests to determine the underlying cause of your symptoms. A doctor can then prescribe medications to help you feel better.
Various treatments may include albuterol or steroid inhalers, antacids, proton pump inhibitors, or lifestyle and diet changes, depending on what is causing your shortness of breath after eating.
Get help from an online doctor
Shortness of breath after eating can be a distressing experience, but by connecting with one of DrHouse doctors, we can quickly determine how to treat your symptoms.
DrHouse is a telemedicine app that allows you to have an appointment with an online doctor without delay. During the video call, the doctor can answer all your medical questions, and determine what medications are needed to treat your shortness of breath.
With DrHouse, you can connect to a board-certified doctor in 15 minutes or less. All of the DrHouse doctors have graduated from top U.S. medical schools, ensuring you will be under the care of a skilled doctor. We also have a care assistant for 24/7 chat support. This way you can quickly receive expert care and understand what is causing your shortness of breath after eating.
Seeing an online doctor provides you with quick access to medical care. If it turns out you need to see a doctor in person, you can schedule an appointment to see a doctor on the same day at a nearby clinic.
With DrHouse, you can also get medical prescriptions and prescription refills. The DrHouse app allows all of your medical questions to be answered so that you can feel better in no time.
Occasional shortness of breath after a meal may not be a cause for concern; however, if shortness of breath after eating is interfering with your daily life and causing discomfort it is time to reach out to a doctor.
Common causes of shortness of breath include heartburn and acid reflux, food allergies, and inhalation of food particles. Certain underlying diseases such as COPD, asthma, and heart failure may also cause shortness of breath after eating.
Shortness of breath after eating is not a symptom you should ignore. The medical professionals at DrHouse, can quickly determine the cause and help you find speedy relief.
- American Lung Association (n.d.) Diagnosing and treating shortness of breath. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/warning-signs-of-lung-disease/shortness-of-breath/diagnosing-treating
- Bozkurt, B., & Mann, D. L. (2014). Update: shortness of breath. Circulation, 129(15), e447–e449. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.113.006129
- Castiello, L (2021, March 31) Heartburn: Why it happens and what to do. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/9151
- Gupta, R. S., Warren, C. M., Smith, B. M., Jiang, J., Blumenstock, J. A., Davis, M. M., Schleimer, R. P., & Nadeau, K. C. (2019). Prevalence and severity of food allergies among US Adults. JAMA network open, 2(1), e185630. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.5630
- Martinez, C. (2019, September 30). Shortness of breath: When to see your doctor. Cedars Sinai. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/shortness-of-breath.html
- Sanivarapu, R. R., & Gibson, J. (2021). Aspiration pneumonia. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
- Sandhu, D. S., & Fass, R. (2018). Current trends in the management of gastroesophageal reflux disease. Gut and Liver, 12(1), 7–16. https://doi.org/10.5009/gnl16615
DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.