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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

What should I do if I can't swallow pills?

Category: Health      Published: October 10, 2013

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

bottle of pills
Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

Virtually everyone can swallow pills. If you can swallow food, you can swallow pills. It just takes practice. For those with unusually large tonsils, an unusually sensitive gag reflex, and an unusually large pill to get down, swallowing may seem impossible. But even in such cases, swallowing down these pills can become easy and routine with practice. WARNING: children who are swallowing pills for the first time should only do so with adult supervision to avoid choking. Here are some tips for those having a hard time swallowing their pills:

  1. Be patient and practice. For some people, it may take weeks until they get the hang of it.
  2. Don't swallow pills with a dry mouth and throat. The pill will stick and scrape on the way down, making it harder. Take a sip of water before inserting the pill and swish the water around to get everything moist.
  3. Put the pill on the center of your tongue and then take several small, quick drinks of water.
  4. Distract yourself by watching television or a child or pet doing something cute so that you don't think about gagging, which will make you gag. Most pills are smaller than the chunks of food we regularly swallow, so the fear of gagging is irrational and can be conquered.
  5. If the pill does not have to be taken on an empty stomach, take a few big bites of food before swallowing the pill. Eating will stretch your mouth and throat, stimulate saliva release to help things glide down, and suppress the gag reflex.
  6. Swallow the pill quickly. If you let it sit on your tongue for awhile, it may start to dissolve, emitting a bitter taste that will trigger your gag reflex.

There are, however, many cases where swallowing down pills is not an option. For instance, a pregnant mother with sever morning sickness will just vomit up the pill before it can be completely dissolved. Also, young children have not developed enough to safely master the swallowing technique. Similarly, people with damaged throats, esophaguses, or stomachs may not be able to swallow pills. In such cases, tell your doctor and he or she will be able to prescribe a different form of medication that will be less convenient than pills but more manageable. The UK's National Health Service lists the following alternatives:

Topics: gag reflex, pills, swallowing pills