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Foods that May Worsen Respiratory Symptoms

Increased shortness of breath – wheezing – cough. Yikes! We know that there are foods that are good for your lungs, but are there really foods that can cause your respiratory symptoms to worsen? Scientists say that, at least for some people, there are. Read on to discover the foods that cause shortness of breath and to learn about phlegm-producing foods, as well as what food is good for lungs and should be a part of your respiratory diet. Focusing on foods good for the respiratory system can help you breathe better.

Bid Farewell to Foods that Cause Gas and Bloating

Certain foods and beverages are notorious for producing gas and bloating, which often leads to uncomfortable – not to mention embarrassing – digestive symptoms. However, your gut is not the only system that suffers from the consumption of gassy foods. Your neighboring respiratory system can also be affected, which can cause more than just discomfort. As the girth of the abdomen increases from the effects of gas and bloating, so does pressure on the diaphragm, which can, in turn, make it difficult to breathe. People with lung disease have enough problems in the breathing department, so they certainly do not need to complicate matters by choosing foods and libations that produce gas.

For some people, dairy is one of the foods that cause shortness of breath, though it is typically a symptom of a dairy allergy. If you have a dairy allergy, then it is likely that dairy and respiratory problems go hand-in-hand for you. Thankfully, true dairy allergies are relatively rare. About 5% of children have a dairy allergy, but nearly 80% of those children grow out of the allergy as they get older. Still, for those who are allergic to dairy and respiratory problems are the result, it is important to talk to your doctor about avoiding dairy and supplementing adequately. If you are experiencing bloating when you eat dairy due to lactose intolerance, you may still find that dairy and respiratory problems are an unfortunate match for you. Talk to your doctor about how to go about avoiding, monitoring or supplementing your dairy intake.

For a list of other foods to avoid, read Identifying Foods that Cause Bloating.

Say No to Nitrates

Cured meats such as hot dogs, ham, corned beef, luncheon meats and bacon are preserved with nitrates and nitrites. These substances do a great job of preventing spoilage, but may have a negative impact on your health and have been shown to be one of the foods that cause shortness of breath. A study published in the European Respiratory Journal reveals that a high dietary intake of cured meats is associated with an increased risk of worsening COPD symptoms and subsequent hospitalization for COPD exacerbation.[1] Instead of meats cured with nitrates, look for meats cured in sugar or other curing agents.[3]

Be Aware of Food Allergens

Researchers estimate that approximately 32 million Americans (2018 estimate) including 5.6 million children under the age of 18 (2015-16 estimate), have food allergies resulting from an overreaction of the body’s immune system to certain foods.[2] The trouble with food allergies is that they can worsen respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing and cough. Unfortunately, food allergies seem to be on the rise, and about 40% of children with food allergies are allergic to more than one food.[2]

Food allergies can cause a variety of reactions, from mild itchiness inside the mouth to a life-threatening anaphylactic response. If you already have a breathing condition, or find that your allergic reactions typically involve respiratory problems, it is helpful to be aware of common allergens. You may want to get an allergy test as well.

Foods that cause mucus because of an immune reaction and are most commonly associated with allergies include:

  • Eggs
  • Cow’s Milk
  • Shellfish
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans
  • Wheat and other foods containing glutens
  • Fresh fruit
  • Salads
  • Hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans and other tree nuts

In addition to the potential for actual foods to cause an allergic reaction, some food preservatives can worsen respiratory symptoms as well. Here are some food preservatives to avoid that could trigger symptoms for you.

  • Potassium bisulfite
  • Potassium metabisulfite
  • Sodium bisulfite
  • Sodium metabisulfite
  • Sodium sulfite

If you are aware of an existing food allergy, know that there are foods that cause shortness of breath for you or have experienced the link between dairy and respiratory problems, then you already know which foods to avoid. However, if your respiratory symptoms increase only after eating certain foods and you have never been told you have a food allergy, you may have developed one. Talk to your physician about allergy skin testing.

Knowing the Difference between a Food Allergy and Food in Your Lungs

Food allergies can cause a variety of symptoms, including shortness of breath and an increase in mucus. However, the symptoms of food in the lungs are different. While pulmonary aspiration (or the inhalation of small particles) is not a great concern and only causes short-term shortness of breath, aspiration pneumonia (caused by the inability to cough up the particles) can cause an infection. Make sure you know what to look out for so you are familiar with the more worrisome symptoms of food in your lungs and can respond correctly:

  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness and fatigue
  • Fever
  • Frequent cough with foul-smelling phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swallowing problems

If you feel like you have inhaled food or liquid, or if you think stomach acid has entered your lungs, and you experience these symptoms of food in the lungs, seek medical attention. Aspiration pneumonia can lead to serious infections or other complications.

What Are Foods that Cause Mucus?

If you struggle with shortness of breath, excess mucus will not help your breathing, so it is important to do your best to avoid phlegm-producing foods. In addition to any foods you might be allergic to, there are some foods that can cause increased mucus production, cause your mucus to thicken, contain histamine or trigger histamine production that can cause your nose to produce excess mucus. As such, it is important to be aware of foods that cause mucus so you can avoid them when necessary. Here are some phlegm-producing foods to watch out for.

Foods Containing Histamine

  • Aged cheeses
  • Alcohol
  • Anchovies
  • Avocados
  • Cider
  • Dried fruits
  • Eggplant
  • Fermented foods
  • Mackerel
  • Mushrooms
  • Processed meats
  • Sardines
  • Smoked fish
  • Spinach
  • Sour cream
  • Tomatoes
  • Vinegar
  • Yogurt

Foods that Can Cause the Body to Produce Histamine

  • Bananas
  • Chocolate
  • Eggs
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Shellfish
  • Strawberries

Foods that Cause Mucus or Cause Mucus to Thicken

  • Milk
  • Cabbage
  • Corn
  • Excess salt or sugar
  • Meat
  • Potatoes
  • Preservatives and additives
  • Processed foods

Limit Meaty, Starchy and Salty Foods

Contrary to popular belief, dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, do not increase mucus production[1] and worsen your cough, though there is a connection between dairy and respiratory problems if you have an allergy or lactose intolerance. However, meaty, starchy and salty foods are included in the foods that cause shortness of breath.[4] A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine reports that certain people who consume a diet composed of mostly meat, refined starches and sodium have a 1.43 times higher risk of developing chronic respiratory symptoms and COPD.[5]

So, if you are trying to avoid foods that cause shortness of breath, which foods should you consider cutting out of your daily diet? Start with the following:

  • Sweets and desserts such as pies, cakes, donuts and sweet rolls
  • Red and processed meats such as hamburger, beef ribs, cold cuts and other luncheon meats
  • French fries and other fried foods such as onion rings, fried chicken, fried zucchini and mozzarella sticks
  • Refined grains such as white rice, cream of wheat, corn and flour tortillas, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, white bread, sandwich rolls or buns

With all the phlegm-producing foods that cause mucus, along with foods that have the potential to cause allergies or cause histamine production and the connection between dairy and respiratory problems, it can be difficult to figure out which foods are unlikely to exacerbate your breathing problems.

So, which foods are good for your respiratory system and are ideal for incorporating into your respiratory diet? Try choosing:

  • Certain fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Certain fish and poultry
  • Whole grains
  • Low fat or fat-free dairy products

Additionally, there are foods that may decrease the amount of mucus your body produces, so if you are not allergic to any of these foods, they could help you breathe a little easier. Here are foods that decrease mucus.

  • Celery
  • Garlic
  • Horseradish
  • Lemon
  • Nuts
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Pickles
  • Rose hip tea
  • Seeds
  • Watercress

Changing your diet to adjust for your health and choosing food good for your lungs can be a bit tricky. However, once you know what foods cause mucus, allergic reactions or breathing problems for you, you can make the necessary adjustments to help you breathe and feel better. Talk to your doctor about how to make sure your respiratory diet includes foods good for the respiratory system and how to ensure you get the nutrition you need. If you do find that there are foods that cause shortness of breath for you, or that you experience a link between dairy and respiratory problems, make sure you find out what else you could do to improve your breathing.

Frequently Asked Questions: Foods that Cause Shortness of Breath

Is there a link between dairy and respiratory problems?

If you have an allergy to dairy, it can cause respiratory problems for you. While those problems can vary, depending on the severity of the allergy, the link between an allergy to dairy and respiratory problems is very real. A true dairy allergy may cause coughing, itching or tingling in and around the mouth, shortness of breath, swelling of the lips, tongue or throat or wheezing. If you notice any of these problems when consuming dairy, talk to your doctor right away. 

What causes shortness of breath after eating?

You can experience shortness of breath after eating for a variety of reasons, including food allergies, inhaling food particles, a hiatus hernia, asthma caused by GERD or COPD. Because there can be a variety of reasons for your shortness of breath after eating, see your doctor to determine the cause if it is ongoing.


  1. Pinnock CB, et. al. Relationship between milk intake and mucus production in adult volunteers challenged with rhinovirus-2. Am Rev Respir Dis. 1990 Feb;141(2):352-6.
  2. https://www.foodallergy.org/life-with-food-allergies/food-allergy-101/facts-and-statistics
  3. de Batlle, J., et. al. Cured meat consumption increases risk of readmission in COPD patients. Eur Respir J. 2012 Sep;40(3):555-560. Epub 2012 Mar 9.
  4. https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2005/december/science-meaty.cfm
  5. Butler, LM., et al. Prospective study of dietary patterns and persistent cough with phlegm among Chinese Singaporeans. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Published ahead of print on November 4, 2005 as doi:10.1164/rccm.200506-901OC.

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