Swallowing difficulties (dysphagia)

Swallowing difficulties can make it hard for you eat and drink. They are caused by a wide range of conditions.

Causes of swallowing difficulties

Swallowing difficulties can happen at any age. There are a wide range of causes for them, including:

  • some medicines, such as antipsychotics
  • heartburn and acid reflux
  • cancer, such as mouth or throat cancers
  • nervous system or brain disorders
  • muscle disorders
  • blockages or structural issues with your mouth, throat or oesophagus.

Symptoms of swallowing difficulties

Symptoms of swallowing difficulties may include:

  • coughing or choking when eating or drinking
  • bringing food back up, may be through your nose
  • the feeling that food is stuck in your throat
  • having issues chewing your food
  • problems with dribbling.

Swallowing difficulties can cause weight loss, dehydration and chest infections.

Diagnosing swallowing difficulties

Let your healthcare provider know if you have swallowing difficulties. They will ask you about your symptoms and check if any other health conditions you have may be the cause.

Your healthcare provider may refer you to a specialist for tests. These may include a:

  • gastroscopy—a camera is passed down through your mouth to look at your throat and stomach
  • swallowing study—your throat and stomach are x-rayed as you swallow small amounts of food.

Treating swallowing difficulties

How your swallowing difficulties are treated depends on the cause and how severe it is. Treatments may include:

  • medicines to treat acid reflux
  • swallowing therapy with a speech and language therapist
  • making changes to what you eat and drink, such as softer foods and using thickener in drinks
  • using special spoons, plates and cups
  • surgery to widen your oesophagus.

Self care for swallowing difficulties

As well as seeing your healthcare provider, the following tips may help you to get food or liquids into your stomach.

  • Sit upright in a chair—at a table is best.
  • Have regular small meals instead of the main large meals.
  • Eat or drink small mouthfuls at a time.
  • If your voice is gurgly when you eat or drink, give a small cough to make sure your airway is clear.
  • Wet food will be easier to swallow as dry food can catch in your throat.
  • If your food has 2 consistencies, such as fruit in juice and cereal in milk, try to mix it into 1 consistency, or eat the solid and liquid portions separately.
  • Concentrate on eating and avoid talking.
  • Hot, ice-cold or fizzy liquids are easier to swallow than room temperature liquids.
  • If you are told to have thickened liquids, avoid ice-cream and jelly as they thin before swallowing.
  • Drink from the top half of you cup to avoid tipping your head back.
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