A very common issue with elderly adults (and many age groups including young children) is that they have problems swallowing pills. Especially large pills or large capsules.
I personally have a lot of problems swallowing pills so I do my best to get what I need in liquid or capsule form – which for some reason seem to be easier for me.
Results of a first-ever nationwide survey of adults on pill-swallowing difficulties, conducted by Harris Interactive, reveal that a large percentage (40%) of American adults have experienced difficulty swallowing pills, even though most have had no problems swallowing food or liquid. Of those who experience difficulty swallowing their medications, 14 percent have delayed taking doses of their medication, 8 percent have skipped a dose and 4 percent have discontinued using their medication.Oralflo.com
So I got to thinking that there may be some tricks that I can share about how to make this easier for seniors and their caregivers.
But before we get to the tips – make sure to check with your healthcare provider and/or pharmacist about any limitations such as…
- Pills that cannot be taken with food
- Some pills should not be crushed or cut
- Some medications can be switched to liquid form so make sure to ask if that’s possible
- If there are any medical conditions that is making swallowing pills difficult
- If there is a psychological condition that may be making it difficult to swallow pills
Among ambulatory patients who report difficulty in swallowing pills, 1 in 3 experience vomiting, gagging, chocking, or have tablets blocked in the throat. Therefore, the modification of dosage forms (58.8%) and nonadherence (9.4%) are frequent and can worsen medical conditions and increase health care costs.Annals of Family Medicine
What Physical Issues Make It Harder To Swallow Pills?
Oftentimes, the most common physical problem that makes it extremely difficult to swallow pills is Dysphagia – a swallowing disorder.
Dysphagia is often caused by health conditions such as stroke, head trauma, dementia, parkinson’s disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis and Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease.
Others may suffer from a hypersensitive or under-developed gag reflex.
Swallowing pills or capsules may trigger this reflex which can be very uncomfortable.
Why Psychological Issues Make It Harder To Swallow Pills?
Some individuals suffer from Phagophobia – the fear of swallowing. Or Pseudodysphagia which is the fear of choking. Whereas others suffer from the fear of swallowing pills, specifically.
This is usually due to a traumatic event that they have had with swallowing pills in the past.
The phrase “It’s a hard pill to swallow” can certainly be referenced to many things but for people who have trouble swallowing pills, the issue can be very real and very difficult.
Vinh Nguyen, M.D., a family medicine physician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California believes that the issue is often more psychological than physical. (source: self.com)
About Pill Dysphagia
Pill dysphagia, or difficulty in swallowing pills, can be both a physical and psychological condition.
In many cases, it can be a combination of both physical and psychological factors. It’s important for anyone experiencing pill dysphagia to consult with a healthcare professional.
They can help identify the root cause of the problem and suggest appropriate strategies or treatments, which may include working with a speech-language pathologist or a mental health professional.
Tips For Swallowing Pills
Here are some great tips that just may help to make it easier for seniors to swallow pills.
Dr. Madeleine M. Castellanos says that “If your brain has taught itself to reject pills or capsules, you will have to teach yourself that you actually can swallow pills.” (source: thebodymindmd.com)
From researchers at the University of Heidelberg who came up with these two effective techniques.
The Pop Bottle Method
This method was developed by German researchers from the University of Heidelberg.
- Fill a plastic water bottle with water. Make sure the plastic is soft enough to squeeze it.
- Put the pill on your tongue.
- Close your lips tightly around the bottle opening of the water bottle.
- Drink from the bottle, keeping your lips tightly around the mouth of the bottle and use a sucking motion to drink the water.
You should be able to swallow the pill immediately as you are drinking.
The Lean-Forward Method (use this with capsules)
A second method of swallowing pills developed by those same German researchers is the Lean Forward method.
This was the most successful amongst the study participants and it’s one of the easiest ways to take a pill.
- Fill a glass with water.
- Put the capsule on the back of your tongue.
- Take a medium sip of water (not too much, not too little) but do not swallow it.
- Close your mouth and tip your chin down towards your chest and keep it there.
- Swallow both the water and capsule while in this position.
In a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine, 90 percent of participants found success with the “lean forward approach” to swallowing pills.Herohealth.com
Some other ideas that might help:
- Do not swallow a pill if you have a dry mouth and/or throat. Drink water before you taking the pill.
- Hide a pill in soft food like apple sauce or pudding or yogurt or even ice cream. If that is still too difficult you can grind the pill into a powder and then add it to any of these items. NOTE: Check with the pharmacist first before cutting or grinding any medication.
- Some people enjoy taking their pill with a spoonful of jelly or jam.
- If your senior loved one enjoys peanut butter or cream cheese sandwiches you can try hiding the pills in there.
- If capsules are easier to swallow than pills and the pills are small enough you can try inserting a pill or two inside a vegan capsule (you can purchase them here).
- You can try putting the pill in your mouth and then drinking water from a straw.
- My late husband used to take a gulp of water, but wouldn’t swallow it. He would then put his head back as if he was going to gargle and then he would open his mouth and drop the pill or pills in his mouth and swallow. I found this very difficult but it may work for you.
- Some folks find that if they cover their pills with butter or their favorite sauce they are able to swallow them easier. This may work if it’s a large tablet.
- You can also purchase a lubricant gel made specifically to help you to swallow pills easier. This may also help to hide the taste of your medication if it’s unpleasant.
- Another product you can try is Pill Glide. A spray that can make it easier to swallow a capsule or pill.
- It may be helpful to cut a banana into thick slices and then insert a pill into the banana slice.
- If the pill can be cut into smaller pieces (without that affecting it’s effectiveness) then do that and take them with water or put them in some food.
- Some people find it helpful to practice with a Tic Tac or small candies – I personally did not, a pill is a pill even if it is just a small candy but it may be worth a try for you or your senior loved one.
Any of these methods or tips should help you to better swallow your medications and vitamins over the old method that you’ve been using.
What NOT To Do
There are a few things you should know to avoid doing when it comes to swallowing pills
- Don’t throw or place a pill towards the back of your throat (source) or the back of the mouth.
- Don’t tip your head back when trying to swallow a pill (it seems like that’s what you should do but it’s actually the wrong thing to do).
- Don’t cut or crush any pills or capsules unless your doctor has said that it’s okay to do this. The reason is that some medications will not work if they are cut or crushed.
I hope that at least one of these ideas can help you and your senior loved ones to make swallowing their pills much easier.
But, if any of these still do not work and you’re having a great deal of difficulty getting your senior loved one to swallow their medications then I urge you to contact your physician.
If you have trouble swallowing pills or anything else, don’t put off getting an evaluation. Start with your primary care physician, who will likely refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist or to a speech-language pathologist for a swallowing assessment.Harvard Health Publishing
Swallowing issues are not a minor problem – so don’t ignore it and get some professional medical advice if any of these methods do not work for you.
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