What You Should Do When A Pill Is Stuck In Your Throat

Unlike most foods, which we can break down into bite-sized pieces as we chew, many medications are intended to be swallowed whole. However, more people than you may think experience swallowing difficulties when it comes to taking pills. 

Researchers from a 2021 study published in Patient Preference and Adherence gathered data from 152 adults in Australia regarding their ability to swallow solid oral medications, including capsules or tablets. The study findings revealed that over 30% of adults had trouble swallowing pills whole. Many of whom had experienced a prior choking incident from medication.

"We often see people who can swallow food and liquid just fine, but have difficulty with pills," said Denise Ambrosi, director of the Speech-Language Pathology Department at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, in a statement via Harvard Health Publishing. "Some people have an aversion to swallowing pills, and others have physical issues that affect their ability to swallow."

Hydration is key

When a pill gets stuck in our throat, it's often more specifically stuck in our cricopharyngeus — the muscle that sits right above the esophagus (via University of Rochester Medical Center). For those who experience cricopharyngeal dysfunction, this muscle fails to relax in order to allow food or medication down into the esophagus (per Penn Medicine). More often than not, however, a pill generally becomes lodged in our throat when the area isn't lubricated enough to carry the medication all the way down.

First and foremost, do not assume a stuck pill will take care of itself. Leaving it in place can cause damage to the lining of the throat. Therefore, to help work that defiant pill the rest of the way down your throat, first try flushing your throat with water. You can also follow up those gulps of water with a little food to help ensure the pill has made its way fully down and out.

Alternatively, if your pharmacist confirms that the pill is able to be crushed, allow it to break down in a glass of water beforehand prior to drinking it. You can also implement this method with food. Breaking up your pill into applesauce, for instance, can be helpful, since applesauce also has lubricating properties.

Is the pill still stuck?

If a pill is still stuck in your throat, but you're able to breathe, proceed to repeatedly cough in order to dislodge it (via Healthline). If a stuck pill is hindering your ability to breathe, however, promptly self-administer abdominal thrusts. Start by forming your hand into a fist and position it above your navel. Next, cover your fist with the opposite hand to hold it in place. Bend over a solid surface, such as the back of a chair or end of a table, and using fast, upward motions, thrust your fist into your abdomen.

Naturally, prevention is the best way to handle a pill getting stuck in our throats. A 2014 research article published in Annals of Family Medicine outlines two effective techniques for making pill-swallowing smooth and seamless. For tablets, the first technique is the pop-bottle method, in which the individual places the tablet on the tongue and purses their lips around the opening of a plastic water bottle to create an air-tight seal. Tilting your head back, use a sucking motion to take a drink of water and swallow the tablet down. If done correctly, the sides of the bottle should pull inwards.

For capsules, try the lean-forward technique. After placing the capsule on your tongue, take a sip of water and hold it in your mouth. Lean your head forward by tucking your chin slightly towards your chest. Then, keeping your head in place, swallow down the water and capsule.