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7 tips to make swallowing pills easier

Lots of healthy people find it difficult to swallow a pill. Here's how to make it go down easier.
/ Source: TODAY

Taking medications or supplements can feel like such a chore, especially if you hate swallowing pills.

You may feel anxious that jumbo tablet will get stuck in your throat, or fear you’ll choke or gag. It’s a common problem that can be helped with a few techniques and modifications.

Swallowing seems simple, but it’s a complicated process that involves 50 pairs of muscles working to help move food from your mouth to your stomach.

There are many medical and physiological reasons that can make it hard to swallow, including tumors and the effects of a stroke. Swallowing disorders are called dysphagia.

This guide is not about that, but rather the 30-40 percent of healthy people who have no problems downing food or drinks, but find it difficult to swallow a pill.

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Part of it may be our instinct to avoid swallowing something solid, said Dale Amanda Tylor, a board certified otolaryngologist at the Washington Township Medical Foundation in Fremont, California.

“We’re taught forever: Don’t swallow something that’s not been chewed,” Tylor told TODAY. “You’re totally going against that. ... You have something solid that you would want to chew and you have to bypass that thought.”

In most people, the esophagus — or swallowing tube — has more than enough room to accommodate even the biggest pill, she noted. Think of all the times you’ve eaten a sandwich and swallowed a chewed-up mouthful. That resulting mix of food and saliva is many times bigger than a pill.

But if you think you’re not going to be able to get the pill down, your body may fight you on doing it, even though there’s no physiological reason for it, Tylor noted.

Here are seven tips that may help:

1. Drink lots of water

It’s the No. 1 thing doctors teach patients because such a big part of swallowing is making sure the food is moist enough, Tylor said.

Drink water before you swallow to lubricate the throat, then take the pill with water, and keep drinking after you’ve swallowed to make sure it goes down all the way to the stomach, she advised.

This is especially important as you age because saliva production often goes down when people get older.

2. Try the ‘bottle’ method for tablets

This is one of two techniques German researchers found to be “remarkably effective” in helping people swallow pills, according to a 2014 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine.

  • Fill a flexible plastic bottle with water.
  • Put the tablet on your tongue and close your lips tightly around the bottle opening.
  • Using a sucking motion, take a drink from the bottle. Swallow the water and the pill right away.
  • Don’t let air get into the bottle as you swallow.

3. Try the ‘lean forward’ method for capsules

This is the other technique the German researchers found to be so helpful.

  • Put the capsule on your tongue.
  • Take a sip of water, but don’t swallow yet.
  • Tilt your chin slightly towards your chest.
  • Swallow the capsule and the water with your head bent forward.

4. Try a lubricant

A product such Pill Glide may be an option. You spray it in your mouth to make the pill go down easier, though Tylor noted plain water will probably suffice in most cases.

5. Practice with different head postures

Tylor pointed to a study that found kids who had trouble swallowing pills did much better after practicing in a specific way for two weeks.

Head position influences "swallowing dynamics," the Canadian researchers note. So they asked the kids to swallow small candy with a sip of water while their heads were positioned in five different ways: in the center, tilted up or down, or turned to the left or right. The kids then rated which position worked best over 14 days. All of the children who practiced found a favorite position and overcame their swallowing problems.

Related: Are child safety caps enough to keep kids out?

6. Put your pill in soft food

Take your pill with apple sauce or chew a bit of food and then put the pill in your mouth. It may make it go down easier.

But be careful about cutting, crushing or chewing your medication. Some pills are designed to dissolve slowly to ensure a steady release of the drug, so breaking the outer layer could disrupt the timing and potentially give you an overdose, Tylor said. Read the package insert and check with your doctor before cutting a pill.

Related: Majority of parents give their children the wrong dose of medicine

7. Tell your doctor about any changes

If you’ve been able to swallow pills all your life, but suddenly find it difficult, it could signal a problem, Tylor noted.

One common reason may be acid reflux, which can burn the throat and make it a bit more swollen, she added. Get the symptoms checked out to rule out more serious issues.

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