Have swallowing pills become more difficult the older you get? Maybe it’s just those large and lovely potassium pills that you struggle with. Understanding the course of your difficulties can help determine if a bigger problem is brewing.

If pills become more difficult as you age, one possible factor could be a dry mouth. Certain medications can cause the salivary glands to make less saliva. Older adults are also more prone to dehydration. Diseases, cancer treatments and nerve damage are other reasons the mouth can dry up.

Another reason you might be having problems with pills could be due to chronic reflux. A variety of structural changes can occur within your food pipe (esophagus) when reflux is left untreated over time. These changes can cause a feeling of food or pills being stuck in the throat or chest area. Especially if not all of your food was thoroughly chewed before you swallowed. If only larger pills are problematic when swallowing, this may be an indication of issues within the esophagus.

If not structural or due to a disease process, the cause could also be anxiety. The fear of swallowing pills may have happened after a bad experience trying to get a previous pill down. The more anxious you get, the tighter the throat tends to feel making it even more difficult to relax.

For those of you needing a way to get those pills to go down easier, you can ask your doctor if your medications can be crushed or given in liquid form. If your medications must be swallowed whole, here are some tips that may help you get them down better.

  • Put the pill in apple sauce. This will help it glide more easily down to the back of your mouth and then into the throat. If you don’t like apple sauce there are some great products on-line that are flavored and can help get that pill moving, such as Pill Glide Strawberry Spray or Phazix Pill Vanilla Swallowing Gel.
  • Try a thicker consistency to put your pill in, such as Nutella or even peanut butter. This is usually good for someone that needs to “feel” the pill in their mouth before they can initiate that swallow. It also helps avoid the bitter pill taste.
  • Use a straw. This usually helps those with a dry mouth or anxiety issues. Place the pill towards the back of your tongue then take a large sip of water. You want to take a big enough sip that the water actually moves the pill back towards your throat for you, then swallow. There are products you can buy on-line that will also work in a similar fashion, such as the EZ Dose Medi-Spout or Oral Flow Pill Swallowing Cup.
  • Take the pill with hot water, tea or coffee. It should be just hot enough that you can tolerate holding a large sip in your mouth for more than a few seconds. The warm temperature will help start to dissolve the pill as you swallow. This also can be helpful if the issue is due to poor sensation of the pill in the mouth.
  • Place the pill towards the back of the tongue, then take a sip of a carbonated drink or cool water. The carbonation and cool temperature help with sensory issues. Next, quickly tilt your head forward allowing the pill and drink to move back past the tongue and swallow.
  • If the step above doesn’t work and your trouble is getting that pill to move past the back of the tongue, then you might want to try using a head flick with a carbonated drink. First, place the pill towards the back of your mouth. Take enough of a sip of your carbonated drink to allow the pill to float in your mouth. Then, just like in the Hollywood movies, flick your head back as if dramatically swallowing your pill. While this method tends to be very effective for some, for others it may be problematic so proceed with caution.

You should consult with your doctor if your ability to swallow food and pills has become more difficult over time. You may need a variety of tests before you get to the source of your problem. If after testing a swallowing problem is identified, you will most likely need therapy. A medically trained Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) that specializes in swallowing difficulties (also known as dysphagia) can help design a treatment program to improve the function of your swallow.