Learning to Swallow Even the Most Troublesome Pills

Woman taking pills

I remember when my kids were getting older and my wife and I started to switch them from tasty syrups to tasteless pills. While swallowing pills is a skill many of us take for granted, a large cold and flu capsule can remind us just how hard and unpleasant it can be to get medications down. As a doctor, most of the medications I prescribe come in pill form and I often forget that many adults struggle with swallowing their meds.

You’ve probably developed your own methods for making the whole process as painless as possible. I’ve seen many people close their eyes and throw their head back, swallow hard and cringe, hoping that when they swallow that last gulp of water there won’t be anything left sitting in their throat. Incredibly, studies have shown that as many as one in three individuals experience vomiting, gagging, choking or the sensation of having tablets blocked in the throat after taking medications.

The result of all of this is that many people don’t take the medications they’re supposed to. Some people will even cut pills into smaller pieces or take fewer than they’re supposed to, which leads to ineffective doses. In some cases, that can be life threatening. Fortunately, a study out this week reveals how to make taking your pills easy.

The researchers gave the participants a variety of different pill shapes and sizes. More than half of those who participated said they had trouble swallowing pills. After trying several different head positions, the researchers hit on two methods to swallow pills that can be used depending on the shape of the medication.

The “Pop-Bottle” Method for Tablets

Tablets are medications that are essentially powder pressed into a shape. Aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen are all examples of medications that often come in tablet form. For those taking tablets, the researchers recommend the “pop-bottle method.”

  1. Get a typical water bottle with an opening that you can seal your lips around.
  2. Put the tablet on your tongue and close your lips around the top of the bottle.
  3. Drink from the bottle keeping your lips sealed by pursing them and using a sucking motion. Swallow the water and the pill right away.
  4. Don’t let air into the bottle as you drink. This means that the bottle should start to pull in on itself as you drink.

The “Lean-Forward” Technique for Capsules

Capsules are the ones a lot of people struggle with. Think about those giant, clear cold and flu pills you might get from your local drug store. These should be taken using the “lean-forward” technique.

  1. Put the capsule on your tongue.
  2. Sip a medium amount of water into your mouth, but don’t swallow it yet.
  3. Tilt your chin towards your chest and bend your head down slightly.
  4. With your head in this position, swallow the water and the capsule together.

This second technique goes against what most people do when they throw their head back to try and “toss” the pills to the back of their throat. When you lean your head back you close off the space in the back of your throat, making it harder for pills to actually make it down. By tilting your head forward, you provide that capsule with as much space as possible to go down your throat and into your stomach.

Both methods helped 90% or more of the participants to get their pills down more easily. If you count yourself as one of those who struggles with pills, try both of these methods next time you’re taking your meds.