If you experience shortness of breath or wheezing after eating, it could be due to a variety of reasons, including heart problems, lung problems, or digestive problems.
Shortness of breath is often described as “air hunger” since it feels like you can’t get enough air quickly enough. In this article, we look at some of the potential reasons why you may feel short of breath or begin wheezing following a meal.
According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), approximately 32 million people in the United States have food allergies. More than 26 million are adults, and an estimated 5.6 million are children. Shortness of breath or wheezing after eating are among the symptoms associated with food allergies.
A food allergy reaction occurs when your immune system mistakenly identifies a given food or a substance in food as harmful.
In response, your immune system releases chemicals like histamine into your bloodstream, causing allergy symptoms. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and may involve the skin, gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system, and respiratory tract.
Symptoms of food allergy usually develop within a few minutes to two hours of ingestion, and may include:
- Swelling of the tongue, lips, face, or other parts of the body
- Hives or an itchy rash
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, indigestion, or nausea
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Pale or blue skin
- Anaphylaxis, which is the most severe allergic reaction and may be life-threatening
While any food can cause an adverse reaction, eight types of food account for about 90% of all reactions.
The most common food allergies in children, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), are milk, eggs, and peanuts. Whereas shellfish, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, and fruit and vegetable pollen are the most common food allergens in adults.
Following a food allergy diagnosis, the only way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the food in question. But should you come into contact with the allergenic food, OTC or prescribed antihistamines can help ease the symptoms of a minor reaction. For a severeallergic reaction, you may require an epinephrine injection along with emergency medical treatment.
Shortness of breath could also be an indicator of anaphylaxis, which is a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can happen within seconds or minutes of exposure to an allergen and usually gets worse rapidly.
Anaphylaxis causes your throat to swell, which constricts your airways hence difficulty breathing and wheezing. Other symptoms include:
- Hives, rashes, itching, or pale skin
- Dizziness or fainting
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Low blood pressure
- Fast heart rate
- Confusion and anxiety
Common triggers of anaphylaxis include:
- Foods, such as peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, wheat, and soy.
- Medicines, including antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin
- Insect stings from bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and fire ants.
Although rare, some people may also develop anaphylaxis from vigorous physical activity. If you, your child, or someone else you’re with is having a severe allergic reaction, administer an epinephrine injection immediately.
Follow this up with a visit to the ER even if you start to feel better as symptoms may recur (biphasic anaphylaxis). Anaphylaxis could be fatal if not treated right away.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease occurs when stomach acid flows back into the food pipe more than twice a week. Acid reflux can irritate the lining of your esophagus, causing a burning pain in your chest (heartburn) that usually occurs after eating. Other common symptoms of GERD include:
- Bitter taste in your mouth
- Regurgitation of food or liquid
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Bad breath
- Chest pain
Sometimes the stomach acid gets aspirated into the airways and lungs, irritating them. This can lead to GERD symptoms that are more asthmatic in nature, such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest. If you have asthma that developed in adulthood, it may be linked to GERD as the two conditions often occur together.
GERD has various triggers, including eating heavy meals, eating certain foods such as fatty or fried foods, lying down soon after eating, drinking alcohol or coffee, and smoking. Over-the-counter-medication and making changes to your lifestyles, including your eating habits, can help relieve your symptoms and reduce the frequency of acid reflux.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a progressive inflammatory lung disease characterized by obstruction of lung airflow that makes it hard to breathe. It is not uncommon for people with COPD to experience shortness of breath after a meal, especially a large meal. There are several reasons why this occurs.
For many, it’s as a result of COPD causing your lungs to become hyper-inflated hence take up more room in your chest. Consequently, when your stomach gets filled, it pushes against your lungs causing you to experience shortness of breath. Eating large meals also requires more energy to digest and causes increased pressure on your chest and diaphragm, leading you to feel out of breath.
To avoid breathing problems after you eat, the COPD Foundation recommends you:
- Eat several small meals throughout the day
- Eat a diet with fewer carbohydrates as carbs produce more carbon dioxide than other types of foods, causing less available oxygen
- Avoid salt as it can increase your heart’s workload
- Eat slowly
The leading cause of COPD is tobacco smoking, but it may also develop from long-term exposure to harmful fumes, chemicals, or dust. Aside from shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness in the chest, a chronic cough that may produce sputum, and frequent respiratory infections are other common symptoms of the condition.
If you have persistent symptoms of COPD, especially if you’re over 35 and smoke or smoked in the past, see your doctor. Although COPD is a progressive disease that gets worse over time, it is treatable. And early diagnosis and treatment, coupled with lifestyle changes, can relieve symptoms and slow or halt COPD’s progression, so do not ignore the signs.
Treating Shortness of Breath
As shortness of breath or wheezing after eating could be due to several different causes, treatment will depend on the underlying cause and duration of your symptoms. Once that is determined, your doctor may prescribe medications and recommend lifestyle changes to help manage your symptoms.
If you’re also experiencing other symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, a blue tinge to the lips or fingertips, or decreased alertness, you should get to a hospital immediately. Don’t try to self-diagnose the cause of your shortness of breath after eating. Instead, make an appointment with your doctor; it just might save your life.
- Charlotte L., Debra S.,What causes shortness of breath after eating?, 8 January, 2019.
- Jeanette B., Daniel M, Causes of Shortness of Breath or Wheezing After Eating, April 02,2020.
- Mayoclinic staff, Shortness of breath, June 13,2020.
- American college of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, Food Allergy, n.d
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, ANAPHYLAXIS: A Severe Allergic Reaction, February 2017.
- National Health Service, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 20 September 2019.