Help! I can't swallow pills

Originally Published: October 19, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 29, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I'm a young adult who can't swallow pills — so far I've always been able to find a chewable form of anything I've had to take, but this is a life skill that I think I should have. I've tried all sorts of methods — putting a pill in Jello/ice cream, filling my mouth with water and then trying to take a pill, even trying to swallow small candies as practice — but I just seem to gag. I think it's because my throat doesn't want to relax enough to let something solid slide down it — do you have any suggestions for how I could improve this situation?

Thanks, Can't Swallow

Dear Can't Swallow,

Rest assured that many young adults and some not-so-young adults share your problem. It's understandably strange to swallow a solid substance without chewing; it can seem against natural reflexes (not to mention, against table manners). Nonetheless, when it comes to medication, pills are extremely convenient and very much the norm. There is no cure-all for this challenge; different people use different strategies for different reasons. There are, however, liquid, powder, and even suppository forms of medications, herbs, and other healers; a chat with a pharmacist might be the best way to help the medicine go down.

But, since pill swallowing will likely remain part of your health plan from time to time, check out this physiology factoid: because of the epiglottis, the vocal fold closure that covers the larynx or voice box, it is physically impossible to inhale a pill. So, don't even worry about that happening.

You can approach pill swallowing from several angles. A number of handy tips, including some old tricks, some new ones, and some you've already tested, for trying to get those tablets, gel caps, or capsules down are listed in the table below:

Practice foods Swallow mini candies, or small bites of food, without chewing to simulate pill taking.
Embed a tablet in food and consume both together. IMPORTANT: Some prescription drugs are affected by certain foods, so check with your health care provider before trying this one.
Helpful liquids Sip a cold, carbonated beverage (sparkling water, lemon-lime soda) straight from the bottle when swallowing a pill.
Spray or gargle with an over-the-counter topical anesthetic (normally used for sore throats) before swallowing.
Different techniques Take a deep breath before putting the tablet in your mouth; some say that this can suppress gag reflexes.
Place the pill on the back of your tongue, drink some water, tilt your chin down toward your chest, and swallow.
Put the pill on the tip of your tongue, drink some water, tilt your head back, and swallow.

Combining some of the above ideas could yield a remedy for you, but if none of them help, it's time to consider some larger issues.

The fact is your throat is one part of your body, so it operates as part of a complex system. If you're tense about pill swallowing, that tension will most certainly surface when you try to swallow a pill. While it may seem as if you have an extraordinarily strong gag reflex or odd throat mannerisms, consider that it may actually be the power of your mind, not the power of your throat. Try to psych yourself out with this pill swallowing mantra — "I can swallow this." "I can see the pill going down."

Or, perhaps not being able to swallow tablets has something to do with a past event? Did you choke on a peach pit many years ago? Has a school nurse with dirty hands forced you to take a pill? Subconsciously, you may be dealing with issues such as these every time you try to swallow an aspirin or vitamin. Fear of choking, fear of medicine, or general anxiety may be preventing you from swallowing pills. If you think these mental factors are to blame, you might consider talking with a counselor.

While it seems unlikely, the possibility of a greater medical issue does exist. The medical term for difficulty swallowing is dysphagia, and the term is often used with regard to a disorder of the esophagus. At your next check-up, talk with your provider about your difficulty swallowing pills. Keep in mind, though, that if you can swallow your food without trouble, your esophagus is probably fine.

Alice

February 19, 2014

552441
I would just like to say that about the comment saying you can crush pills that, unless it is directed that they are chew able, it is a very bad idea. Most drugs are designed so that once swallowed,...
I would just like to say that about the comment saying you can crush pills that, unless it is directed that they are chew able, it is a very bad idea. Most drugs are designed so that once swallowed, they are dissolved or broken down in the stomach or other organs. By chewing you are giving more surface area and speeding up the degradation or dissolution of the drug. This can lead to a lot higher concentrations in tissues then designed which leads to side effects. Always take pills as directed. By taking them incorrectly you put yourself at risk for side effects that can be potentially harmful.

January 22, 2014

549405
I had no idea so many people have the same issue I have! I'm excited to give your ideas a shot next time I have to take a pill. Like others, it's been almost 20 years since the last time I was able...
I had no idea so many people have the same issue I have! I'm excited to give your ideas a shot next time I have to take a pill. Like others, it's been almost 20 years since the last time I was able to take a pill. I want to be able to train myself to take them before I end up having to be able to. Anyway, thanks for the advice! I'll comment again later to let you know how "training" goes.

August 8, 2013

534322
you can try crushing them up and putting them in juice you dont even taste it!
you can try crushing them up and putting them in juice you dont even taste it!

March 11, 2013

525288
Hey Alice! I realize this post is many, many years old, but I want you to know that it is the single most useful piece of advice I've ever found on the internet. I, too, struggled with swallowing...
Hey Alice! I realize this post is many, many years old, but I want you to know that it is the single most useful piece of advice I've ever found on the internet. I, too, struggled with swallowing pills my entire life. I had more or less come to accept that I was stuck with chewing tablets and avoiding caplets, until I somehow stumbled upon this post a few years ago. This is what did it for me: "Put the pill on the tip of your tongue, drink some water, tilt your head back, and swallow." I've since learned that the act of tilting your head back opens up the throat and makes swallowing the pill a piece of cake. I really can't express my gratitude for having this spelled out so clearly - it sure is nice to not have to purchase an entire bottle of Children's Chewable Tylenol for menstrual cramps these days!

January 17, 2013

521862
I have the same problem. What i do is i take a glass of diet coke, take a sip, then i eat the pill and then i drink the rest to supress the bad taste of the pill
I have the same problem. What i do is i take a glass of diet coke, take a sip, then i eat the pill and then i drink the rest to supress the bad taste of the pill

December 12, 2012

520065
I actually was able to swallow pills for 6 days straight pretty fine, but on the 7th I just couldn't. Maybe my mind had enough.
I actually was able to swallow pills for 6 days straight pretty fine, but on the 7th I just couldn't. Maybe my mind had enough.

June 26, 2012

512971
I never used to be able to take pills. I think it was because they look plastic-y, and don't you have it drummed into your head from a very early age that you NEVER put small plastic-y objects in...
I never used to be able to take pills. I think it was because they look plastic-y, and don't you have it drummed into your head from a very early age that you NEVER put small plastic-y objects in your mouth? Taught that swallowing them would be a very bad thing? It's part of your ingrained survival instinct, which is not controlled by the rational, deliberate part of your mind. You need to get around the barriers rather than trying to crash through them. Once you've done it once, the barriers start to go away, because your survival instincts are based on experience rather than reason. I had to do it when I was prescribed tablets (which were like smarties in size and appearance, so that helped) and the technique I worked out was to put the pill under my tongue rather than on it so that it feels more secure, take a mouthful of water, float the pill in the water so that it wasn't touching the sides of my mouth or tongue, and then just try to feel like I was only swallowing the water. I don't put my head back because that would make me feel like it might hit the back of my mouth going down.

April 16, 2012

510048
I think pharmacists need to realize what they are doing wrong. Most people say they rather take 3 smaller pills than 1 horse pill. I must say, I agree. WIth the time and anxiety spent on gagging down...
I think pharmacists need to realize what they are doing wrong. Most people say they rather take 3 smaller pills than 1 horse pill. I must say, I agree. WIth the time and anxiety spent on gagging down a football, I would have already been able to swallow fifty small pills. Most patients have this problem and there seems to be an easy fix.

March 22, 2012

508997
Thanks for your existence, Alice! I found you through google a year ago, when I found this link. Since then, your health advice has been extremely helpful! I came back to this thread this week to...
Thanks for your existence, Alice! I found you through google a year ago, when I found this link. Since then, your health advice has been extremely helpful! I came back to this thread this week to conquer my pill phobia and was able to!! My trick was: smush soft bread into small pill sized balls (starting small). I figured out how to put in the bread, get some water, holding all of it above my tongue and suctioning it all to the top of mouth and swallowing. Eventually I was able to move from bread to pills! In one case, I put some chocolate syrup on the pill to get rid of the bitter taste.... Thanks, Alice! Sonya, 23

March 6, 2012

508114
I take a sip of water or juice and then put the pill in my mouth and then take another drink to swallow it. It took me a long time of terrible pill taking experiences to figure it out, but it really...
I take a sip of water or juice and then put the pill in my mouth and then take another drink to swallow it. It took me a long time of terrible pill taking experiences to figure it out, but it really helps me.

August 25, 2008

21196

Thank you so much for this article. I was so frustrated because I would always gag whenever I had to take a pill. I just had to take some medication that only came in pills and I found your advice...

Thank you so much for this article. I was so frustrated because I would always gag whenever I had to take a pill. I just had to take some medication that only came in pills and I found your advice. I didn't have any crackers with me so I used bread. Cinnamon bread is my favorite, so I ate a few slices and practiced swallowing after only a few chews. After awhile, I threw the pill in with it. I could even continue chewing the outside of the bread without breaking the pill. Then, I swallowed it! Easy!

Thanks a bunch!!!

Choker

February 22, 2007

21194
Thanks Alice — these hints should help a lot of people. Every few years I get put in the hospital for kidney stone pain, and up until just a few months ago, I could never take the oral pain...
Thanks Alice — these hints should help a lot of people. Every few years I get put in the hospital for kidney stone pain, and up until just a few months ago, I could never take the oral pain meds for it. That was really inconvenient. I think it's important to be able to take pills to make your life (and the doctors' lives, in this case) easier.

To those of you who still can't swallow a pill even with something like yogurt or a mouthful of water, I would recommend this method, which was effective right away. It's fine to take a swallow of water ahead of time to moisten your mouth, but you should put the pill in and THEN put the water in your mouth, swallowing right away. Usually within one to two sips, you can get it down. I tried the opposite order, and it never worked for me. But anyway, if you do it like this and start out by using a water bottle (way easier to get it down), I think you'll be surprised — it works for me, someone who was a life-long "gagger" until recently.

Also, don't be afraid of pill sizes — when I was learning, my first pills were birth control pills, which are very small. But a while ago, I needed to take an Advil, which is much larger, and with a quick cup of water it went down just as easily. Learning to swallow pills is like learning to ride a bike, swim, or put in contacts — it's only scary at the first hurdle, and then it's laughably easy afterward. Good luck to all of you. :)

October 13, 2006

21086

Dear Alice,

Thanks so much for this article. My boyfriend can't swallow pills, and it's caused multiple arguments between us. (Odd, I know). Anyway, it's nice to know that other adults...

Dear Alice,

Thanks so much for this article. My boyfriend can't swallow pills, and it's caused multiple arguments between us. (Odd, I know). Anyway, it's nice to know that other adults have problems with this. Hopefully some of these techniques will work for him.

January 12, 2006

21012
Dear Alice,

Thanks so much for sharing pill swallowing tips.

Here's what worked for me: I chewed on 2 crackers then put the capsule in the mush. Then I gulped it down with a shot of orange...

Dear Alice,

Thanks so much for sharing pill swallowing tips.

Here's what worked for me: I chewed on 2 crackers then put the capsule in the mush. Then I gulped it down with a shot of orange juice. I inadvertently bit into the capsule & got a nasty taste in my mouth, but I got the medicine down for the first time ever! I feel confident I will be able to use this method next time without getting the yicky taste. Thanks so much.

April 11, 2005

20881
Dear Alice,

The cracker method just worked for me. After having loads of trouble swallowing penicillin for the past few days (even after cutting them in half), I chewed a couple of crackers and...

Dear Alice,

The cracker method just worked for me. After having loads of trouble swallowing penicillin for the past few days (even after cutting them in half), I chewed a couple of crackers and it went down fine. Problem solved, thanks =)

— Adam, 18

March 9, 2005

20877
Hey Alice,

In response to the last advice, I've just tried it out and the pill went down pretty fine.

The only problem I had really is that the pill disolves very fast in the water and by...

Hey Alice,

In response to the last advice, I've just tried it out and the pill went down pretty fine.

The only problem I had really is that the pill disolves very fast in the water and by the time I got to swallow it, it was all over the place. But down it went.

Thank you very much.

June 11, 2004

20746
Hey Alice, RE: Pill Swallowing I would just like to say that to swallow a pill, it always helps to have water in your mouth before you put the pill in. Everyone will have their own sort of...
Hey Alice, RE: Pill Swallowing I would just like to say that to swallow a pill, it always helps to have water in your mouth before you put the pill in. Everyone will have their own sort of routine. What I do is I take a good amount of water, swallow some, just to get used to swallowing, then I tilt my head back, open my mouth, drop the pill in, and try not to let it touch my tongue, and then with my head still tilted back, I swallow. You have to relax and tell yourself it`s fine, and that you won`t choke or gag. I find that the closer it is to the back of my throat, the more unaware I am that it is there, so I am psychologically just swallowing the water. Good luck. I am 16 and I could never do this before, but I learned this trick from my aunt and it really helps. Tilting my head forward will just make it fall down to the tip of my tongue again, so I avoid that.

May 21, 2004

20731
Dear Alice,

In regards to Help! I Can't Swallow Pills, I discovered another way to take pills that may be of assistance to other people who have trouble. I chew up about...

Dear Alice,

In regards to Help! I Can't Swallow Pills, I discovered another way to take pills that may be of assistance to other people who have trouble. I chew up about two crackers, and before I swallow, I pop the pill into the middle of my mouth. I can't feel the pill when it goes down, and I've found this very easy to do.

-Meike- :)

May 12, 2004

20725
Hey Alice,

Thanks for the article, Help! I can't swallow pills! I've been able to get them down perfectly fine before, but now I can't get down even an itty bitty...

Hey Alice,

Thanks for the article, Help! I can't swallow pills! I've been able to get them down perfectly fine before, but now I can't get down even an itty bitty 20-mg Celexa pill! I've tasted that stupid pill so many times it makes me gag just to put it in my mouth. I will try those methods you listed, they should help. Thanks!

> :) 15-yr-old choker

May 9, 2004

20619
Alice,

I used to be unable to swallow pills. They just would not go down. Then I discovered that if I put water in my mouth before the pill and keep it suspended in the liquid (not letting the...

Alice,

I used to be unable to swallow pills. They just would not go down. Then I discovered that if I put water in my mouth before the pill and keep it suspended in the liquid (not letting the pill touch my tongue), I can get it down. But glad to know there were others like me.

May 9, 2004

20620
Dear Alice,

In response to your answer to HELP! I CAN'T SWALLOW PILLS:

I TOTALLY understand what that person was going through, and I'd like to tell you I...

Dear Alice,

In response to your answer to HELP! I CAN'T SWALLOW PILLS:

I TOTALLY understand what that person was going through, and I'd like to tell you I used your suggestion about using Jello. Finally! I did it! I slip my capsules inside a 'blob' of Jello, and swallow it all in one shot! Yay!

Thanks a million!!!

May 9, 2004

20621
Dear Alice,

Thank you so much for your techniques. I never thought of doing some of these things. I always had a fear of choking on pills. Thanks to you, I can swallow pills now as an...

Dear Alice,

Thank you so much for your techniques. I never thought of doing some of these things. I always had a fear of choking on pills. Thanks to you, I can swallow pills now as an adult.

February 1, 2002

20399
Alice,

Just like to say thanks for this information! :) I found this page off of a Google search and I've succeeded in swallowing pills (something I haven't been able to do for my...

Alice,

Just like to say thanks for this information! :) I found this page off of a Google search and I've succeeded in swallowing pills (something I haven't been able to do for my first seventeen-and-a-half years on earth). Thanks a lot!