What causes shortness of breath after eating?

Shortness of breath after eating can be an uncomfortable or distressing experience, but is generally not a cause for concern. There are many possible reasons why a person may feel out of breath after eating, and treatments vary depending on the cause.

1. Food allergies

The American College of Allergies, Asthma, and Immunology estimates that 4 percent of adults and 4-6 percent of children in the United States have a food allergy. Most symptoms appear within minutes to 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.
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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 conducting clinical trials to try to find out how people can develop a tolerance for specific foods.


Shortness of breath can indicate a rare but life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. People experiencing anaphylaxis require urgent medical attention. Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • short of breath
  • repetitive cough
  • a weak pulse
  • hives, rashes, or swelling on the skin
  • throat tightness
  • a hoarse voice
  • difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • a feeling of doom
  • elevated heart rate
  • low blood pressure
  • dizziness or fainting
  • heart attack

People with severe allergic reactions should wear an EpiPen, which is a medical device that allows people to inject themselves with epinephrine to counteract the allergic reaction. People should call emergency services after giving the injection.

2. Inhaling food particles

Occasionally, people can inhale small particles of food or liquid while eating. This is called a lung aspiration.

People with healthy lungs are often able to cough up these particles. Coughing can cause short-term shortness of breath, and possibly a sore throat.

When a person’s lungs are not healthy enough to expel the particles, they can develop aspiration pneumonia. This occurs when the particles cause an infection within the air sacs of one or both lungs. Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia include:

  • chest pain
  • wheezing
  • short of breath
  • a cough that produces foul-smelling, green, or bloody phlegm
  • unpleasant breath odor
  • difficulty to swallow
  • fever
  • excessive sweating
  • fatigue

Treatment for aspiration pneumonia depends on the person’s general health and the severity of their condition. In most cases, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.

3. Hiatal hernia

A hernia occurs when an organ or tissue is compressed in a part of the body where it does not belong. A hiatal hernia is where the stomach protrudes into the chest through the wall of the muscle that separates the diaphragm and the abdomen.
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A hiatal hernia can cause shortness of breath that worsens after eating.

A paraesophageal hernia is a type of hiatal hernia that occurs when the stomach compresses next to the food pipe. If it grows too large, it can push on the diaphragm and crush the lungs, causing chest pain and shortness of breath. These symptoms may be worse after eating, as a full stomach puts 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 to swallow

Typically, a surgeon will repair a paraesophageal hernia using keyhole surgery or laparoscopic surgery. A small lighted camera, called a laparoscope, will be placed in the food tube 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, especially if they also have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

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