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Pill Stuck in Throat? What You Should Do

cartoon boy holding neck choking

Normally, swallowed objects pass without incident from the mouth into the esophagus (food pipe) and stomach. However, sometimes food or a medication pill can get stuck in your throat. This can be mildly annoying or even terrifying. It can also be dangerous if it causes choking. But if you know what to do, the problem can be resolved relatively easily. Please continue reading to find out what you should do if you have a pill stuck in your throat. 

Why do pills get stuck?

Cricopharyngeus—yes, it’s a tough one to pronounce, but it’s what’s responsible for a pill getting stuck in your throat. This is the name of a ring-like muscle at the upper end of the esophagus (food pipe). It is the uncomfortable spot where pills tend to get stuck, especially in people who have difficulty swallowing pills. 

When you swallow food, flexible cartilage called the epiglottis prevents the food from entering the windpipe and lungs. Instead, it ensures that the food enters the esophagus and digestive tract.

A common reason pills get stuck in the throat is a lack of moisture. This is especially true if you swallow pills first thing in the morning. Also, some capsules and pills have coatings that make them slightly sticky. Larger pills can be harder to swallow. Small children and adults with a strong gag reflex may find it hard to swallow pills. Those with throat disorders may also have trouble swallowing pills.

What to do when a pill gets stuck in the throat?
If You’re Alone

If you are alone and choking on a pill, food, or something else, first call 911. Then try and perform the Heimlich maneuver on yourself. To do this, you should:

  1. Make a fist and place it a little above your belly button on your tummy.
  2. Grab the fist with your other hand. 
  3. Bend over a hard surface like a counter edge, chair, or table.
  4. Push your fist with a quick, firm movement in an upward direction.

Health care providers say that the Heimlich maneuver is an effective way to remove an object, such as a pill, stuck in the throat. Studies have shown that giving yourself the Heimlich maneuver works equally well as someone else doing it for you.

If A Person is Coughing and Still Breathing

If a person shows signs of high-pitched breathing with coughing or crying out or complains of a burning sensation in the throat, this means their airway is not completely blocked. Coughing is the body’s natural way of dislodging objects stuck in the throat, so you should encourage the choking person to continue coughing. You can give the person some firm back blows between the shoulder blades, if needed. It might help to have the person drink liquids (a few sips of water) or eat solids (some soft food) to help dislodge the pill. However, you should not wait for the pill to dissolve in the throat. 

If A Person Cannot Cough or Breathe 

If someone has a pill stuck in their throat and has a complete inability to cough, cry out, or breathe, but they are still conscious, you can perform the Heimlich maneuver or back blows on them. 

Heimlich Maneuver

To perform the Heimlich maneuver on another person, you should stand behind the person choking, wrap your arms around the person’s waist, and slightly lean them forward. Then, ask a helper to make a fist, hold the wrist with their other hand, and place it over the choking person’s belly button. Next, the helper should move the fist in a quick upward motion, repeating the action up to 5 times until the swallowed object comes out of the person’s throat.

Back Blows and Abdominal Thrusts

You can try to dislodge a stuck pill by performing alternating back blows and abdominal thrusts. Stand behind the person who has a throat object stuck and place one arm across their chest. Lean them slightly forward. Using the heel of your other hand, give the person 5 sturdy taps between the shoulder blades. Then, place a fist above the belly button on the person’s abdomen, grab your wrist with the other hand, and push upwards up to 5 times. You can repeat alternating back blows and abdominal thrusts until the person starts coughing, gasping, or breathing.

If a Person is Unconscious

Call emergency services immediately if someone has got a pill stuck in their throat and is unconscious. Lay the person on their back and perform CPR (chest compressions). Check regularly to see if the object has come loose. Do not put a finger in the throat of a choking person to try and dislodge the stuck object, as this can push the object further into the throat and make the situation worse. However, if you can clearly see the object blocking the person’s throat, you can try and gently sweep a finger around their mouth to dislodge the object from the throat. 

How to prevent a pill from getting stuck in your throat?

  • Always swallow pills with water. Lack of moisture is a common reason for pills getting stuck. This is especially important if you have trouble swallowing pills. Swallow the pill with a big gulp of water and continue drinking a few gulps afterward.
  • Tilt your head forward slightly when swallowing pills. This can help to relax the throat muscles and provide less resistance to gravity, allowing the pill to go down into the food pipe and digestive tract. 
  • Stay upright when you swallow pills (standing or sitting). Avoid lying down as it can make it harder to swallow. 
  • If you have difficulty swallowing pills, try taking them with foods such as applesauce, smoothies, yogurt, or mashed potatoes. 
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist if it is okay to empty the contents of a capsule or crush a pill to a powder before taking it. This is not suitable for all medicines, but if your doctor says it is okay, it can make swallowing pills easier.
  • Talk to your doctor about the option of smaller pills for your health conditions, if possible.

Wrapping Up

Having a pill stuck in your throat can be an alarming experience. Learning how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on yourself and others is a good idea. You can also take simple precautions to prevent the problem, such as drinking a little water when swallowing pills. 


  1. https://www.nsc.org/home-safety/safety-topics/choking-suffocation
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5520267/
  3. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/dysphagia
  4. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=501