About 40 percent of American adults have trouble swallowing pills, according to a Harris Interactive poll. Commonly cited issues include gagging, a lingering aftertaste from an incomplete swallow, and having a pill become lodged in the throat. These problems can be even more prevalent in seniors with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and stroke, all of which can affect the ability to swallow.

A group of researchers from the University of Heidelberg has unlocked the secret to taking oral medications, even for those with dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). Scientists tested two techniques for taking pills on more than 150 men and women. Some of the participants had preexisting problems with swallowing and some did not.

“Both techniques were remarkably effective in participants with and without reported difficulties swallowing pills and should be recommended regularly,” study authors say.

Tips for Swallowing Pills

According to the researchers, different techniques work best for different pills.

The Pop-Bottle Method for Tablets

  1. Take a plastic water bottle that is flexible enough to squeeze in when you drink from it and fill it with water.
  2. Place the tablet on your tongue and close your lips tightly around the mouth of the bottle.
  3. Drink from the bottle by pursing your lips and sucking in water. Keep the mouth of the bottle entirely covered by your lips and refrain from allowing air to get into it. You should see the bottle begin to bend inward as you drink.
  4. Immediately swallow the pill along with the water.

Why it works: Sucking on a water bottle helps engage your swallowing reflex, enabling you to overcome the gag reflex that kicks in when trying to down a large tablet.

The Lean-Forward Method for Capsules

  1. Fill a glass, cup or bottle with water.
  2. Place the capsule on your tongue.
  3. Take a medium drink of water, but refrain from swallowing.
  4. Close your mouth and tilt your chin down towards your chest.
  5. Keeping your chin and head down, swallow both the water and the capsule.

Why it works: Most capsules float on water, making them difficult to swallow in the traditional way with your head in a neutral position or leaned backwards. Tilting your head forward while you have water in your mouth just before you swallow helps position the floating capsule at the back of your mouth so it slides more easily down your throat.

Still Have Trouble Swallowing Pills?

Nearly 97 percent of people who tried the lean-forward technique for capsules said the strategy was helpful, while 88 percent of people who used the pop-bottle technique with tablets said the same. These two methods were highly effective for many people, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach to making medications easier to take, especially for older adults with swallowing issues.

Some pills can be cut into smaller, more manageable pieces or crushed and added to food or drinks. Others can even be prescribed in a liquid form that eliminates the problem altogether. Doctors and pharmacists are key sources of information about medications. Always consult one of these professionals before trying anything new with a prescription or over-the-counter medicine.