What to Know About Swallowing Pills

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 13, 2023
3 min read

If you find it hard to swallow pills, you are not alone. One in three people will vomit, choke, or gag when swallowing pills. 

This problem may keep you from sticking to your medication routine. And that, in turn, can make a poor health situation worse for you.

There are a few reasons why you may have difficulty with medication in the form of pills, tablets, or capsules: 

  • A dislike for pills
  • Problems with the mechanics of swallowing
  • A temporary condition that makes it hard to swallow, such as taking antibiotics or going through chemotherapy  
  • Dry mouth
  • Fear of choking 

Signs that you are experiencing difficulty swallowing. These signs may indicate that you have dysphagia, or general problems with the mechanics of swallowing, even if temporary:

  • Feeling like something is stuck in your throat or chest
  • Choking or coughing while swallowing
  • Inability to chew normally
  • Swallowed contents coming back up through your nose
  • Saliva coming out persistently
  • Producing a wet or gurgling sound

These conditions include:

  • Cancers (particularly of the mouth or esophagus)
  • Stroke, dementia, head injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and other conditions that involve the nervous system 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Always talk to your doctor if you have trouble swallowing pills, tablets, or capsules. Even when providing tips, researchers often warn that one tip or another may not be good for your particular situation. 

One study of people who have trouble swallowing medication shows two ways to make the process easier:

  1. Pop-bottle method
  2. Lean-forward method

The pop-bottle method. This method is designed for swallowing tablets. It suggests that you fill a soda bottle with water. Place the tablet on your tongue and bring the bottle opening to your lips. Close your lips tightly around the opening of the bottle and take a drink.‌

Keep contact between the bottle and your lips by using a sucking motion. This will make you swallow the water and the pill without letting air into the bottle.‌

Researchers found that this method offered a 60% better chance of swallowing tablets than the traditional way of taking a sip and trying to swallow. 

The lean-forward method. This is for swallowing capsules. Here you place a capsule on your tongue and take a sip of water but don't swallow. Lean forward toward your chest and swallow the water and capsule with your head in the bent position.

The technique showed 89% improvement in swallowing capsules over the traditional method of swallowing pills.

However, don't rush to try these pill-swallowing methods at home without having a thorough swallowing assessment done first. Research does not show how your perception of swallowing pills may change, nor has it established what happens to you psychologically.

  • Drink adequate water. Before placing the pill in your mouth, take a generous swig of water and then another sip of water with the pill.
  • Visualize yourself successfully swallowing the pillbefore you swallow it. If you still gag or are unable to swallow for any reason, remove the tablet and dry it with a clean paper towel to prevent it from dissolving. Try again in a few minutes.
  • Use applesauce or pudding. You can trick your brain into swallowing pills by burying them whole in a spoonful of some food you like. For example, try putting the pill on the tip of a teaspoon and covering it with applesauce or pudding of your choice. However, take note that not all medications should be taken with food as they can lose their effectiveness.
  • Use a straw. Suck liquid through a straw to help wash your pill down. The reflex movement of sucking up the liquid while sealing the straw with your lips is an excellent distraction to help you get the pills down. Buy specialized medication straws to make the process easier.
  • Coat the pill with a gel: Coating your tablets with a lubricant gel may also make it easier for you to swallow them. One study showed that 54% of participants found it a lot easier to swallow their pills this way. The lubricant limits the discomfort you feel as the drug slides down into the stomach.