If you need help figuring out how to swallow a pill, you’re not alone: We all have those things that seem impossible for us, but are astoundingly easy for everyone else. More than that, though, trouble swallowing pills is actually something medical professionals see pretty often, Susan Besser, M.D., a primary care physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, tells SELF. But it’s a problem that they can help you with. If you’re struggling to swallow pills when you need to, try some of their tips below so you can get on with your life.
First, here’s why you might be having a hard time.
You may wonder if there’s something physically wrong with you if you have trouble swallowing a pill, but don’t worry. You’re more likely to have trouble because of your mind, not your body, Vinh Nguyen, M.D., a family medicine physician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF. Simply put, a lot of people who have a hard time with pills tend to overthink it or feel anxious and tense for a variety of reasons.
Maybe you had a scary choking incident when you were younger or just worry that you could have one in the future. That’s understandable—even though the bites of food you swallow are generally bigger than pills, you also chew your food first so it can slide down your esophagus, which connects your mouth to your stomach, as a softened mass. Taking a pill that you can’t chew to make that process easier can feel like a whole other issue, and sometimes that translates into a mental roadblock.
If you’ve wondered if there’s something up with your throat that’s making it hard to swallow pills, that’s not likely. Technically, difficulty swallowing (also known as dysphagia, according to the Mayo Clinic) can occur for a number of reasons, but if something was interfering with the process on a structural level, it would likely affect anything you swallow, not just pills.
“Only rarely have I encountered someone with a structural problem, such as a narrowed esophagus, which could potentially cause this problem,” Morton Tavel, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, tells SELF. Something like chronic heartburn, which can cause acid to travel up the throat and form scar tissue that damages and narrows the esophagus, could potentially cause this problem, Dr. Nguyen says. Otherwise, a physical issue usually isn’t to blame for difficulty swallowing pills.
You’re probably safe to assume at the start that your pill struggles are in your head, not your body. With that in mind, read on to learn how to swallow a pill using both mental and physical tricks.
1. Hide the pill in applesauce.
Since difficulty swallowing pills is often mental, fooling yourself into thinking you’re only ingesting something else can help. Hiding a pill in applesauce is huge with a lot of medical practitioners.
“We actually have containers of it sent up for our med rounds,” certified clinical research coordinator Mary Beth Vonder Meulen, R.N., a family medicine nurse at the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, tells SELF. Applesauce typically contains pectin, a gelatinous substance that makes it slippery, she explains. Hiding a pill in a big mouthful of applesauce or a similar soft, smooth food can help it slide down your esophagus, especially when you follow it with water to move it along.
2. Try the “pop bottle method.”
This popular method involves putting the pill on the back of your tongue, closing your lips tightly around the opening of a plastic water bottle, and sucking down the water while tilting your head back and keeping your lips around the bottle, Dr. Nguyen says. This method works best with tablets (as opposed to capsules), according to a 2014 study published in The Annals of Family Medicine, which tested two techniques designed to help people who had trouble swallowing pills on 151 adults. This is because, as the researchers pointed out, the physical properties of pills (such as their density and size) impact how best to take them. In this case, tablets tend to be heavier and bigger, and the “pop bottle method” helps them sink toward the back of the throat to make them easier to swallow.
3. Lean forward.
Aptly known as the “lean forward method,” this technique involves putting a pill on the back of your tongue, taking a sip of water (but not swallowing), tilting your chin toward your chest, and then swallowing while your head is bent forward. “It changes the perception of swallowing a pill and can help alleviate some of that psychological aversion,” Dr. Nguyen says. The “lean forward method” appeared in the study we mentioned above alongside the “pop bottle method,” and the researchers found it most effective for swallowing capsules, given that capsules tend to be less dense and you have to account for where they float. In this case, you tilt forward so they float closer to your throat.
4. Put the water in your mouth first.
If your issue is that you don’t want to have to feel the pill on your tongue at all, some people find that filling their mouths with water first is the way to go. Once you do that, you can plop the pill in and swallow. It might not be the most scientific method, but anecdotally, some people swear by it for tricking their brains a little bit. And hey, whatever works for you.
5. Practice with small, safe candies.
You can also practice swallowing small, safe objects like little candies as a way of training yourself, Marc Leavey, M.D., an internist at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, tells SELF. He recommends starting with a large sprinkle or a Tic Tac, moving up to mini M&Ms, and then going to regular M&Ms. Once you can handle one of those, you should be golden to swallow pills.
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