Pop a pill (of the legal variety, of course) and you’ll most likely be left with a nasty, bitter taste in your mouth. Trivial as it may seem, this is a pretty substantial problem in medicine, but one that exists for good reason.
Why do medicines taste so bad?
As explained by the American Chemical Society, most of the chemicals in medications are derived from plants and are therefore inherently bitter.
Drugs are also formulated to contain as few additives as possible because they may interfere with the action of the active ingredients. The addition of tasty flavorings is low on the priority list and could potentially cause more problems than it solves.
Bitter taste is thought to have evolved as a deterrent against ingesting toxic substances. Since drugs can be toxic in high enough quantities, it’s a plus that many of us find the taste of pills repellent.
This isn’t true with all medicinal pills, however. Ibuprofen (aka Advil) can taste sweet as it’s literally candy-coated with a layer of sugar. The most likely explanation behind this is that ibuprofen can irritate the stomach, so coating it prevents the drug from breaking down until it reaches the intestines.
Making pills taste better
Bad-tasting pills can cause a headache for doctors and patients alike. Over 90 percent of pediatricians reported that the unpleasant taste of drugs was the biggest barrier to completing treatment. It’s an especially big problem for kids as they have a heightened sensitivity to bitter tastes until adolescence.
Antiretroviral medication for HIV is notoriously bitter-tasting, which has proven to be a significant obstacle to adherence, especially in young children. To overcome this hurdle, some drugmakers have made alternatives of drugs like dolutegravir that are strawberry flavored and dissolve in water.
Some scientists are hoping to fix the wider problem of terrible-tasting pills. Scientists from the UCL School of Pharmacy are using data collected from an “electric tongue” to create an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can predict the bitterness of drugs. They ultimately aim to make drugs slightly more palatable to ensure patients stick to their drug treatment plan.
Tips to make swallowing pills easier
If you struggle with taking medication due to its taste, there are a few easy tricks to help you. Firstly, try placing the pill on the back of your tongue and quickly swallowing it with a glass of water. Secondly, just hold your nose; your sense of smell is responsible for about 80 percent of what you taste.
Lastly, you can cover the pill with something sweet like honey or maple syrup. In the words of Mary Poppins, "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.