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Coughing While Eating in Elderly Adults

When spending time with your elderly loved ones, you may sometimes notice that they seem to be coughing a lot, especially at mealtimes. An elderly person coughing when eating is more common than you would think. Swallowing becomes more difficult as we age for a variety of reasons.

Why do the Elderly Cough So Much?

Coughing while eating in elderly people is ultimately an indication of difficulty swallowing. Swallowing becomes more difficult as we age due to:

  • Dental problems. This can mean cracked or missing teeth or even poor fitting dentures that make it difficult to chew food completely and therefore making the food harder to swallow.

  • Loss of muscle strength in the mouth and throat. This often occurs with Parkinson’s disease or dementia.

  • Dry mouth, which can be a side effect of many medications.

Because swallowing is something that nearly always happens without thought, it becomes especially frightening when it doesn’t work properly. There is also a scary risk of choking in the elderly when swallowing becomes a challenge.

Check out this short video showing a fluoroscopy of a 20-year old person swallowing, followed by a fluoroscopy of a 70-year old person swallowing.

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What to Do When an Elderly Person is Choking

If an elderly person appears to be choking, but is coughing forcefully, allow them to continue coughing. This may naturally remove the stuck object. To know for sure if an elderly person is choking on food or anything else, you can watch for these signs:

  • Hands-on the throat

  • A look of panic or confusion

  • Inability to speak or cough

  • Squeaking sounds when trying to breathe

If the elderly person cannot cough forcefully enough to remove the stuck object, they will need abdominal thrusts, also known as the Heimlich maneuver. To perform abdominal thrusts:

  • Stand behind the person

  • Make a fist with one hand and place it just above the person’s navel.

  • Grasp the fist with your other hand and quickly and forcefully press the fist into the stomach.

  • Give five thrusts and check if the blockage has cleared.

See a more detailed explanation in this video by WebMD.

Ways to Prevent Choking in Elderly Adults

Watching an elderly person coughing while eating can be stressful, but there are ways to help prevent coughing and choking while eating:

  • Sit upright while eating and for 45 minutes afterward.

  • Limit distractions during mealtimes, especially if the person with difficulty swallowing also has dementia or another cognitive disorder.

  • Keep the mouth moist. Make sure there is plenty to drink during mealtimes.

  • Cut food into very small pieces.

  • Swallow often - two or three times per bit of food or sip of a drink.