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I've had trouble swallowing pills all my life. I've tried tilting my head forward, backward, doing the thumb trick and nothing worked. How can I swallow pills without gagging on them?

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    What is "the thumb trick"? – Mawg says reinstate Monica Nov 19 '19 at 13:01
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    Have you tried cutting/snapping the pill in half with a pill splitter or your fingers? – TylerH Nov 19 '19 at 15:25
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    You don't mention it- did you try it with water? – Aganju Nov 19 '19 at 16:35
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    What kind of pill is it? Could you post the dimensions roughly as I use different tricks for small "M&M" shaped pills to large oval horse pills. – Vality Nov 19 '19 at 19:54
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    A spoonful of sugar? – BruceWayne Nov 20 '19 at 3:42

17 Answers 17

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After struggling with this for years, I finally found a solution that works 99% of the time: Viscous liquid. Using a thicker liquid, lets me swallow pills without it touching my throat and triggering my gag reflex.

Simply replacing water with milk makes this once onerous task easy for me.

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    Don't forget smoothies and various kinds (textures) of yogourt might be used to gradually get a palate (more sensitive than yours) more accustomed to these "foreign" objects. You were probably traumatized too early to remember but "the 'malady' lingers on." – Stan Nov 18 '19 at 23:59
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    Kifer. The thinnish yogurt culture works well. Applesauce. Pudding. – M.Mat Nov 19 '19 at 2:24
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    @JRE Note, the linked article isn't as definite as you: What food can you take antibiotics with? Antibiotics are usually taken with water because taking them together with fruit juices, dairy products or alcohol can affect how the body absorbs some drugs. Dairy products include milk as well as butter, yogurt, and cheese. After taking an antibiotic you may need to wait for up to three hours before eating or drinking any dairy products. Grapefruit juice and dietary supplements containing minerals like calcium may also work dampen the effect of antibiotics. - "can/may" not "do/will" – Caius Jard Nov 19 '19 at 17:14
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    I would never personally drink or recommend drinking bovine mammary secretions but agree with the broader point that thickness and taste are helpful distractions from the pill (such as frozen banana and mango blended into orange juice as a fruit smoothie). – Ryan Nov 19 '19 at 20:38
  • Yeah this is a solid method. I slowly graduated from Greek yogurt, apple sauce, yogurt, milk, water. The thicker textures get you used to the act of swallowing a pill until its a muscle memory action. – akozi Nov 20 '19 at 23:33
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Being too aware of the pill made it difficult for me, when I was younger. Taking a good sip of water and swirling the pill around in my mouth, "mixing" it with the water, made it seem like the pill disappeared (I stopped noticing it). At that point I could just swallow the water and the pill went with it.

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    This has been the advice I've given in the past. Change the process from "swallowing a pill with water" to "drinking some water with a pill in it" can help a lot with the intuitive mechanics. – CriminallyVulgar Nov 19 '19 at 10:34
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    Something to be careful with this approach is that some medicines dissolve quickly, and if it dissolves in your mouth it will change how it affects your body. I would check with the doctor/pharmacist before using this approach. – called2voyage Nov 19 '19 at 20:51
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    The biggest problem I have with this approach is that some pills taste truly vile when they start dissolving. – barbecue Nov 19 '19 at 21:36
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    @called2voyage This usually doesn't take more than a second or two, so I would assume it is generally not a problem, but I'm not a doctor or pharmacist, so I can't say for sure. – garac Nov 19 '19 at 21:45
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    @barbecue once you become comfortable with the process it will come naturally to complete it without the sort of delay that would start to dissolve the pill. If you can't get the first pill you have to take in a flavourless form (capsules, for example, won't taste of anything so long as you don't burst or dissolve the actual capsule in your mouth) you could get some practice with something benign like a vitamin supplement. – Will Nov 20 '19 at 12:12
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I've long found swallowing pills to be a bit more difficult than it looks for others. I recommend you try;

An alternative form of medication

Ask your doctor if the medication they are prescribing can be made available as a solution you can drink, perhaps mixed with something else, or a form you find easier to swallow. Suspensions for some drugs are available, particularly if they're administered to children.

Ensure that you ask your doctor if there is anything it shouldn't be mixed with

Making it easier to swallow

Tips for making pills easier to swallow:

  • drink something first - if your throat gets dry then swallowing the pills and following it up with the liquid leads to them sticking more easily, or feeling like they're stuck

  • pop the pills in your mouth, take some liquid in your mouth then look up so your face is angled toward the sky and wait a short moment for them to sink down toward the back of your throat, then swallow - this ensures they're among the first things to go down the hatch not the last, and will get washed down by the liquid following behind them. You're also doing your throat a favor by straightening it out - the basic technique for chugging a beer faster than your mate is to look up and open your throat to ensure as few restrictions as possible

  • hold a pill between your teeth, start drinking and get into a rhythm while letting the liquid pass by the pill held by your teeth and then open your mouth, releasing your grip on the pill and let it be washed down as part of the drinking rhythm

Increasing pill size

For the most part I find pills too small, and I struggle to swallow small things so swallowing a larger lump of soft material is easier that swallowing a small hard lump:

  • take a comfortable sized bite of a bit of bread and chew it up into a gooey blob, take it out your mouth, wrap the pills up inside it, put it back in your mouth and swallow it without chewing - it's already moist, soft and will distort into any necessary shape for swallowing, taking the pills with it. It's a negligible amount of food and is unlikely to affect any "take on an empty stomach" instructions. If you're not into bread substitute an alternative easy swallow foodstuff,like a banana etc. If you're not into spitting stuff out into your hand then swallowing again, chew the bread, then add the pills, pressing them into the bread ball with your tongue, then swallow

Ultimately you're aiming for a mouthful of a normal sized amount of stuff that you would swallow without thinking about it, and then add a pill to it and swallow in one. For children that don't chew much this could be as easy as a slice of banana, tuck the pill in and it's gone. The technique can also work on animals, for anyone who's struggled to get their cat to eat a worming tablet; small blocks of cheese seems to work if you cat doesn't chew much

Reducing pill size

Don't forget that for really big pills you might be able to grind the pills up into something smaller and add them to a thicker liquid like a milkshake, smoothie, or a semi solid like ice cream, chewed bread etc.

A minor problem with breaking pills apart is that sometimes they taste so horrible that they only way people would want them in their mouths is because the outside is coated in something more pleasant tasting. If you're grinding pills up you might need to find something to make a foul taste better.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, be sure that the pill you want to grind up will still work if you do; some pills have a coating that is designed to resist earlier stages of your digestive system so that the pill contents can be delivered to a specific point. Your doctor or pharmacist can advise on whether a pill will still work if ground up, or mixed with a particular substance

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    Warning: Not all pills can be safely ground up. Make sure you consult with a doctor or pharmacist before doing this. Time-release pills, and those that need to make it to a certain point in your GI tract, rely on being ingested whole, in their precise formulation, with all coatings intact. – Cody Gray Nov 19 '19 at 7:56
  • Good point, Cody; added to the answer – Caius Jard Nov 19 '19 at 11:02
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    @JRE Note, the linked article isn't as definite as you: What food can you take antibiotics with? Antibiotics are usually taken with water because taking them together with fruit juices, dairy products or alcohol can affect how the body absorbs some drugs. Dairy products include milk as well as butter, yogurt, and cheese. After taking an antibiotic you may need to wait for up to three hours before eating or drinking any dairy products. Grapefruit juice and dietary supplements containing minerals like calcium may also work dampen the effect of antibiotics. - "can/may" not "do/will" – Caius Jard Nov 19 '19 at 17:07
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    If you cut the pills instead of grind them, you can get the best of both worlds, smaller pills and usually no horrible taste. – Ryan_L Nov 20 '19 at 5:18
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You know that feeling when you're REALLY thirsty? You've been outside cutting the grass on a hot day and you get a glass of water and gulp in down in 4 HUGE swallows?

I put the pill in my mouth and then drink the water while pretending I'm REALLY thirsty. I never even notice the pill going down my throat. I think it's because my throat is so wide open.

I have 4 kids and have taught them this method and it's worked every time.

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Been taking pills multiple times a day for 29 years now.

First attempt: explosive gag reflex, liquid and tablet went across room.

Second phase: crushing and mixing with paste like peanut butter, other spreads. Problem is some tablets aren't allowed to be crushed - they need to survive until lower in your gut.

Now: As silly as it sounds, I don't think about it. Being aware of the tablets makes me more likely to have an issue. I'll pop them in my mouth then with my mouth closed, on auto-pilot go and fill up a glass of water, and drink the glass of water. The (sometimes 15+) tablets just go down with the drink.

Other tips: Don't use hot drinks, inevitably I can't drink a too-hot drink and now you have dissolving tablets in your mouth which tastes awful, and thicker ones like milk or smoothies sometimes help.

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  • @JRE wow, today I learned! – Mark Mayo Nov 19 '19 at 20:41
  • This confirms my feeling, the mindset is important. If you know pills are going to be difficult, they will be, but if you take them without making a thing of it, they go easy enough. It is getting your mind accept that you can take them easily. – Willeke Nov 20 '19 at 17:35
  • @JRE As CaiusJard noted, the linked article isn't as definite as you: What food can you take antibiotics with? Antibiotics are usually taken with water because taking them together with fruit juices, dairy products or alcohol can affect how the body absorbs some drugs. Dairy products include milk as well as butter, yogurt, and cheese. After taking an antibiotic you may need to wait for up to three hours before eating or drinking any dairy products. Grapefruit juice and dietary supplements containing minerals like calcium may also work dampen the effect of antibiotics. - "can/may" not "do/will" – Nahyn - support Monica Cellio Nov 21 '19 at 13:12
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    @Nahyn-supportMonicaCellio: Absolutely correct. But then, all the answers here are unconditionally recommending the use of milk when that can be a very bad idea. That's why I included the link, so that people can know there's a potential problem and inform themselves. – JRE Nov 21 '19 at 13:14
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A family member uses applesauce to help the large pills go down.

Put the pill in the middle of a spoonful of applesauce and in the mouth and swallow. Sometimes an additional spoonful is needed/helpful.

Obviously Jello's,puddings, or similiar could be substituted depending on whatever works for you.

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  • Applesauce works wonder for me too. – Ryan_L Nov 20 '19 at 5:19
  • I find one single mouthful first helps lubricate the throat, then the loaded spoonful, then a chaser of something more liquid, be it water or whatever. – Criggie Nov 21 '19 at 0:36
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Hold the pill gently between your back teeth, take a decent-sized gulp of water and let go. I gave that advice to somebody in their 20s who'd never managed to swallow pills before and they've not had any problems since.

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What helped me is eating something tasty to warmup first, like a piece of bread. So it feels like you are in the process of eating normal food tricking yourself to swallow stuff.

Won't work if you must not eat before taking pills though.

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What works for me is mixing it with some chewed food.

For some people it may feel gross, but if you just take for example some bread, chew until you are ready to swallow, then you can just open your mouth and stick the pill in the ready-to-swallow chunk of food. And swallow the chunk of bread, it's mostly not even noticeable there is some pill in it.

Of course, you have to look/consult your doctor whether your pill can be combined with the food you're swallowing along.

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Swallowing a pill is actually no different than swallowing food. It is the same action. You put something in your mouth and you swallow it. Even though it is another consistency, it is the same action. It is by thinking it is something different and you need to do it in a different way, that the gag reflex pops up. Easiest to get used to it is by eating yoghurt with the pill. You know how to eat yoghurt, how to swallow it, the pill will go right through with it.

I always had difficulty swallowing pills, but since someone said to me "but what is the difference between swallowing food and a pill?", I became aware of this and had no problems ever since (except for really big pills). I can even swallow small pills without drinking! Something I thought people only did in movies. This really shows what just changing your thoughts about something can change you.

It is great what just your mind can do. Your mind is tricking you into thinking you are swallowing something bad, you can trigger it by thinking you are just swallowing some food.

Sounds so silly, but it works for me :) Hopefully someone is also helped with this. This might not be the solution for everyone, it is not easy changing your thoughts like that, but I hope someone will benefit from this :)

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  • What's the difference? Chewed-up food is way more pliable than a pill. – chepner Nov 19 '19 at 14:40
  • Thank you, apparently I did not make myself clear enough so I edited my post. Hopefully it is more clear what I mean now :) – Marijke Nov 20 '19 at 8:16
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If you are not diabetic you can try having one spoon of sugar or some chocolates before taking pills.

This can eliminate the bad taste of pills and create more saliva and hence pills can slide easily.

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  • Mary Poppins would be proud :) – Criggie Nov 21 '19 at 0:37
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You can buy gelatine capsules, or gel-caps, in various sizes. (try E-Bay). You can pop a pill into a capsule and swallow that. It gives you some considerable number of seconds to juggle it around in your mouth before the capsule dissolves and you gag. It's also (counter-intuitively) easier to swallow a larger capsule than a small pill.

Important warning. Read the patient leaflet that comes with the medicine, or talk to your doctor. Some medicines are packaged for slow release, or for release only after passing through your stomach, and must never be ground up. A few are also unsuitable for being surrounded in gelatine when they reach your stomach.

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What works exceptionally well for me is to take the pill, take a sip of water, then tilt the head to look down while swallowing.

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  • I am very good at swallowing pills, I just lay my head back looking at the ceiling. But one day I got problems with a certain kind. When it occurred to me that this pill would float on water (them I usually take will sink), I did exactly as you describe here. Worked as a charm. – Mads Aggerholm Nov 20 '19 at 14:01
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I have the same problem, even a simple Aspirin could become a nearly impossible task at times. The way I solve it is to grap a full glass of water, drink a good gulp immediately BEFORE putting the pill in my mouth, THEN I put the pill over my tongue and drink LOTS of water, swallowing it along with the water and making sure I feel the pill going all the way down instead stucking somewhere down my troath. The way I ensure this is, as said, by drinking several successive gulps of water, sometimes also inclining my head to the back and trying to elongate the neck while swallowing. And just to be clear, by LOTS of water I mean the rest of that full glass, and sometimes, if necessary, even more. Works. Every time.

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Practice with candy, plain M&Ms are a good starting place - repetition is what worked for me.

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I've also had problems swallowing pills. One of the things that helped was advice my doctor gave me. Recognize that difficulty swallowing (at least "normal sized") pills is virtually all psychological. You normally swallow food chunks that are substantially bigger than most pills (and people get down camera capsules for checking their GI tract, and those are WAY bigger than pills). So just understanding that pills won't get stuck can go a long way in overriding the tendency to gag because you're thinking about swallowing a non-food item.

Beyond that, there are a few things you can do to minimize the gag reflex:

  • Breath through your nose.
  • Put the pill at the back of your tongue (there aren't a lot of taste buds there, so it minimizes tasting the pill, which focuses your attention on it).
  • There is over-the-counter sore throat spray, like Chloraseptic, that reduces sensitivity a bit. Spritz a little in the back of your mouth and throat before taking the pill and the sensation of the pill will be less likely to trigger a gag reflex.
  • Don't over-think it. It's a psychological reaction. When you focus on the pill and let your anxiety take over, you make yourself gag. It's counter-productive to focus on the pill and the swallowing process. Follow the Nike slogan, "Just do it." Make the process fast and thoughtless; stick the pill on the back of your tongue and swallow a gulp or two of water before you have a chance to think about. Challenge yourself to see how fast you can place and swallow the pill.
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Most of the existing answers appear to be variations on trying to "trick" your gag reflex, or just starting small and practicing. The key breakthrough for me was completely different - I really thought about and paid attention to the specific actions involved, and took some deliberate conscious control of it.

For me, it didn't take much more than thinking about what it really meant to "open the back of my mouth" as everyone kept telling me to. For people who need more, this might help:

First, focus your attention on the sensations you're feeling on the interior of your mouth, way in the back, where it meets your throat. While breathing through your nose, open your mouth. Then, switch to breathing through your mouth. It might help to take a few extra large breaths. You should feel the air moving through the throat-mouth connection. Take note of where you're feeling that.

Next, sip some water. Pay attention to what's going on near the area you felt the air movement, and swallow the water. There are a few steps involved in swallowing:

  1. You keep a gap in the back of your mouth open, with the roof of your mouth raised and the back of your tongue lowered.
  2. You let the water through that gap.
  3. You close it and shove everything behind it down your throat.

Try to identify and isolate the action of opening that gap, taking more sips of water as needed. When you can open it, and tell that it's open, without finishing the swallow immediately, then proceed to the final step.

You may now be ready to try swallowing a pill (or something similar for practice, such as an M&M). Place the pill in your mouth, fairly far back but not so far that it's difficult. Open the gap as you just learned to, and pour enough water in your mouth to push the pill towards it. Really focus on holding that gap open until the pill is through it, and then swallow.

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