Shortness of Breath or Wheezing After Eating

Don't Ignore These Symptoms - They Could Be Serious

Japanese woman eating a snack
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Shortness of breath or wheezing after eating may be due to a variety of heart and lung problems, or to heartburn. It may also be a symptom of a severe food allergy reaction called anaphylaxis.

Which one is it? If you have food allergies, you shouldn't just wait to find out, since anaphylaxis is potentially life threatening.

Even if you don't have known food allergies, you should treat difficulty breathing after eating as an emergency, especially if it's accompanied by some of the other symptoms of anaphylaxis, which I describe below.

Seek emergency medical care.

Here's a rundown of the potential reasons you might feel short of breath or begin wheezing following a meal.

Anaphylaxis: A Dangerous Possibility

Shortness of breath after eating may be a first symptom of anaphylaxis, and will develop within minutes to two hours after eating. Difficulty breathing combined with swollen lips or hives means that it's very likely you are experiencing anaphylaxis.

However, some people who are experiencing anaphylaxis may only have breathing symptoms. They may feel like they are having an asthma attack.

If you recently ate, have known food allergies, and are feeling like you are having a severe asthma attack, use your epinephrine auto-injector (Epi-Pen or Twinject). You may or may not be experiencing anaphylaxis – but your auto-injector will stop both anaphylaxis and an asthma attack. Your inhaler will not help if the problem is anaphylaxis.

After using your auto-injector, lie down and have someone call 911. You will need to be monitored by a doctor for potential further reactions.

Heartburn Also Can Cause Wheezing

People with heartburn (in medical parlance it's called "gastroesophageal reflux disease," or "GERD") may feel short of breath or start to wheeze following a meal.

Here, the culprit is a weak seal between your esophagus and your stomach, which allows the contents of your stomach to move in the wrong direction. Common symptoms of GERD include a burning pain in your chest (heartburn), and a feeling that food is stuck in your throat.

Shortness of breath, wheezing or coughing following a meal isn't as common, but it still occurs frequently. You might also get the hiccups or feel as if you have a sore throat.

Here's more on heartburn and GERD:

COPD Affects Breathing After Eating

People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, frequently feel short of breath or start wheezing following a meal, especially a large meal. COPD, a progressive condition caused in part by air pollutants such as cigarette smoke, also can cause a chronic cough and chest tightness.

Here, the problem isn't with your digestive system. Instead, since large meals take more energy to digest and actually take up more space in the chest and stomach area, people with COPD experience increased pressure on their lungs and diaphragm after a big meal.

If you've been diagnosed with COPD, the COPD Foundation recommends eating smaller meals more frequently to avoid this problem. It also recommends avoiding salt, since that can increase the workload on your heart.

Learn more about COPD:

Other Causes of Shortness of Breath or Wheezing After Eating

There are numerous other potential reasons you might feel short of breath or begin to wheeze following a meal, including congestive heart failure, gallstones and even irritable bowel syndrome.

As I said above, if you experience significant shortness of breath following a meal, you should seek medical care, since you could be having an anaphylactic reaction, even if you don't have known food allergies.

Sometimes, the first indication of a severe food allergy is this type of reaction, and quick treatment could save your life.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease fact sheet. Accessed 11/7/2015.

COPD Foundation. Shortness of Breath After Eating fact sheet. Accessed 11/7/2015.

Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Anaphylaxis. Accessed 1/16/2011. http://www.foodallergy.org/section/a

NIAID-Sponsored Expert Panel. Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the United States. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Volume 126, Issue 6, Supplement, Pages S1-S58, December 2010

McCartney, Anna. When Anaphylaxis Looks Like Asthma [PDF]. Allergy and Asthma Today, Winter 2007.

U.S. Library of Medicine. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) fact sheet. Accessed 11/7/2015.

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