There are many possible reasons why a person may feel out of breath after eating, and the treatments differ depending on the cause.
This article outlines some of these causes, along with information on treatments and when to see a doctor.
1. Food allergies
The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology estimate that 4 percent of adults and 4–6 percent of children in the United States have a food allergy. Most symptoms arise within minutes or hours after eating.
Shortness of breath after eating is one of several symptoms associated with food allergies.
People who suspect a food allergy can talk to their doctor. A doctor can diagnose food allergies by doing safe tests. Tests may include an oral food challenge, which involves a person eating small amounts of the suspected trigger food.
The best way to prevent allergic reactions is to avoid trigger foods. There is no treatment for food allergies, but researchers are currently carrying out clinical trials to try to work out how people can build up a tolerance for specific foods.
Shortness of breath can indicate a rare but potentially life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. People who experience anaphylaxis require urgent medical attention.
The signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- shortness of breath
- repetitive coughing
- a weak pulse
- hives, rashes or swelling on the skin
- tightness in the throat
- a hoarse voice
- difficulty breathing or swallowing
- nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- abdominal pain
- a feeling of doom
- rapid heart rate
- low blood pressure
- dizziness or fainting
- cardiac arrest
People with severe allergic reactions need to carry an EpiPen, which is a medical device that allows people to self-inject epinephrine to counteract the allergic reaction. People should phone the emergency services after delivering the injection.
A hernia occurs when an organ or tissue squeezes into a part of the body where it does not belong.
A hiatus hernia is where the stomach bulges up into the chest through the wall of muscle that separates the diaphragm and the abdomen. A hiatus hernia can cause shortness of breath that worsens after eating.
A paraesophageal hernia is a type of hiatus hernia that occurs when the stomach squeezes up next to the food pipe. If it grows too big, it can push on the diaphragm and squash the lungs, causing chest pain and shortness of breath. These symptoms may be worse after eating, as a full stomach increases the pressure on the diaphragm.
Some paraesophageal hernias do not require treatment. However, a person may require surgery if they experience the following symptoms:
- chest pain
- pain in the middle or upper abdomen
- difficulty swallowing
- stomach ulcer
A surgeon will usually repair a paraesophageal hernia using keyhole surgery, or laparoscopic surgery. They will place a tiny lighted camera, called a laparoscope, into the food pipe to view and move the stomach back into position.
Laparoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive procedure, and most people make a full recovery within 4 weeks.
4. GERD-related asthma
People who have asthma may experience shortness of breath after eating, particularly if they also have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What is asthma?
Asthma is a disease affecting the airways within the lungs. In asthma, allergens or irritants entering the lungs cause the airways to narrow. This triggers a range of respiratory symptoms, including:
- shortness of breath
- tightness in the chest
What is GERD?
GERD is a digestive disorder affecting the muscles in the food pipe, which is the tube that connects the mouth and stomach.
Typically, the muscles in the food pipe get narrower to keep the food in the stomach after eating. When a person has GERD, these muscles do not close up completely, which allows stomach acid and partially digested food to travel back up into the food pipe. This acid reflux can cause heartburn.
What is the link between GERD and asthma?
An estimated 89 percent of people with asthma will also experience GERD.
In GERD-related asthma, stomach acid irritates the nerve endings in the food pipe. The brain responds by narrowing the small airways in the lungs, which triggers asthma symptoms.
Sometimes, a person might inhale some stomach acid into their lungs. This irritates the airways and can cause breathing difficulties, coughing, and chest tightness.
The key to treating GERD-related asthma is to treat acid reflux. Treatments include:
- over-the-counter medications (for example, Zantac-75, Pepcid A-C)
- eating five or six small meals a day rather than three large meals
- wearing loose clothing around the waistline
- avoiding lying down within 3 hours of eating
- quitting smoking
People with GERD may also choose to avoid the following foods, which may trigger acid reflux in some people:
- fried and fatty foods
- caffeinated drinks
- citrus fruits
- tomato-based products
- spicy foods
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive lung disease that makes it difficult for the body to move air into and out of the lungs.
People with COPD may experience shortness of breath resulting in reduced energy levels. This can make everyday activities difficult.
Because breathing and digestion both require a lot of energy, some people with COPD may become breathless after eating meals.
Other common symptoms of COPD include:
- frequent coughing
- tightness in the chest
Having a full stomach or a bloated abdomen can worsen breathing difficulties in people with COPD. People may notice improvements in their symptoms if they eat small, frequent meals instead of fewer large meals, and avoid foods that cause gas and bloating.
The COPD Foundation offer some other tips for reducing shortness of breath after eating, including:
- resting for 30 minutes before and after a meal
- eating slowly
- reducing sugary foods that can cause tiredness
- avoiding lying down after meals
- avoiding eating while short of breath as this can trap gas, which worsens breathing difficulties.
When to see a doctor
People who experience ongoing shortness of breath after meals should see a doctor. The doctor will conduct tests to determine the underlying cause and may prescribe medications to alleviate symptoms.
Sometimes, shortness of breath can indicate a serious underlying medical condition. According to the American Lung Association, it is important to seek medical attention if shortness of breath occurs while at rest, lasts longer than 30 minutes, or occurs alongside any of the following:
- pain or pressure in the chest
- difficulty breathing when lying flat
- lightheadedness or dizziness
- fever, chills, and cough
- blue tinge to the lips or fingertips
- swelling of the feet or ankles
Breathing difficulties that occur after eating may be a one-off symptom caused by breathing in a small particle of food or liquid.
However, people who experience shortness of breath after every meal, or after eating certain foods, should see a doctor to find out the cause. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of breathlessness.
Sometimes, breathing difficulties can suggest a serious underlying medical condition. It can help to know the signs and symptoms that indicate a need for urgent medical attention.
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