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Swallowing Pills Is a Major Problem for Some People

Pill Chewing Is Not a Practical Solution

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Updated May 31, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Swallowing pills is difficult for more people than you might think. I saw a survey that suggested 40% of people have trouble swallowing pills. Some become pill-chewers -- and for more than one reason, that is not the way to go.

Confessions From a Closet Pill-Chewer

I am what might be called a closet pill-chewer. I've taken arthritis medications on a regular basis since I was 19 years old and diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I'm sure there were a few childhood incidences when I needed an antibiotic, but it was as a young adult with arthritis when I realized that swallowing pills was a problem for me.

I'm so subtle when I'm out to dinner with family or friends, as I discreetly slip my pills one at a time in my mouth and chew with no more action than that required of gum chewing. Let's set the record straight, I'm not quite as subtle as I think I am. There always seems to be someone in a loud voice, ready to blow my cover. You're not chewing your pills are you? Ewww!

My Difficulty Swallowing Pills

I didn't give this a lot of thought over the years. I resigned myself to taking my pills my way. I confess, it's a tad annoying when I see others take pills in a single gulp -- flaunting their ability to chug a handful without flinching. Flaunting is too dramatic -- but my point is, they can do it and I can't -- not effortlessly, at least.

I remember seeing an article about how pet owners struggle to give medications to their beloved animals. The recommendation was to give their medications with peanut butter. With my 18 year old dachshund, Haley (now deceased), I would wrap her pills in bits of American cheese. Worked every time. If all you have to do is more or less dupe a dog -- why am I still having trouble swallowing pills?

What's So Bad About Pill-Chewing?

There are real reasons why pill-chewing is a bad idea. So until I conquer my bad habit -- this is written as do as I say, not as I do. First and foremost, some medications are enteric-coated. An enteric coating prevents the medication from being released until it reaches the small intestine. Enteric-coated medications, if not swallowed whole, can cause stomach irritation or may become inactivated by stomach acid.

There are also medications that are sustained-release, extended-release, timed-release, controlled-release, or continuous-release. Suffice to say -- if you are not swallowing these types of pills whole, you risk disrupting the intended delivery mode of medication into your bloodstream.

Even when the medications are not enteric-coated or controlled-release, pills may affect your taste buds or ruin the enamel on your teeth. There's really nothing good to say about it!

Tips for Swallowing Pills

In an attempt to overcome my throat-tightening, jaw-clenching, bad-tasting, pill-chewing habit -- I have looked for solutions. Admittedly, for too many years, I have been perfectly content with my bad habit.

Here is some of the advice I came across. Before taking pills:

  • Take several deep breaths to relax neck and throat muscles.
  • Hold an ice cube or popsicle in your mouth to numb your throat and calm your gag reflex.
  • Take a drink of water before placing pills on your tongue.
  • Place the pill on the tip of your tongue. (Others recommend the middle of the tongue. Try both -- see what works for you.)
  • Don't psych yourself out by thinking "I'm taking a PILL". Think "FOOD" instead. If you are thinking "PILL", you will feel your throat tightening.

For many people who have problems swallowing pills, it is purely psychological. I always blamed my narrow throat opening as the reason I chew pills. Come to think of it, I made that up.

The Oralflo Pill Swallowing Cup

During my search for the aforementioned tips to help with swallowing pills, I found a product designed to help -- a pill swallowing cup. It claims that "its unique, patented design facilitates the natural swallowing reflex to help you swallow medications or pills without stress or discomfort."

It looks like a toddler's cup but supposedly helps children, adults, or seniors -- anyone who has difficulty in swallowing pills. I haven't tried it. If you have, let me know at arthritis@aboutguide.com.

Bottom Line

Whether it's a sip of water, a popsicle appetizer, a special cup, or working on your psyche that will eliminate problems with swallowing pills -- do it. Simply stated, it's harmful to do it any other way.

Sources:

Oralflo Pill Swallowing Cup. Oralflo.com. Accessed May 11, 2009.
http://www.oralflo.com/

How to Swallow Pills Easily. Kassidy Emmerson. Associated Content. May 29, 2006.

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