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Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)

3-minute read

Eating and drinking, both for nutrition and pleasure, is a vital part of our lives. But having difficulty swallowing can make life difficult since it may limit what you can eat and drink, leading to frustration, stress and even embarrassment.

What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia is the medical term used to describe having difficulty swallowing. This includes problems with sucking, swallowing, drinking, chewing, eating, dribbling saliva, closing your lips, or when food or drink goes down the wrong way.

Early signs of dysphagia are coughing, gagging or choking while eating and drinking. This means food, liquid or saliva might get into your lungs, which could cause pneumonia

Causes of dysphagia

Common causes include reflux and problems with the nervous system, muscles or structures of the head and neck.

Reflux

Reflux occurs when stomach acid leaks from the stomach and moves up into the oesophagus. Read more about reflux here.

Nervous system problems

Conditions that damage your brain and nerves can cause dysphagia, including:

Muscle problems

Muscle problems of the face or neck, or spasms of the oesophagus, can cause problems with swallowing. 

Structural problems

Swallowing problems can also develop due to damage to structures such as the lip or palate. 

Signs and symptoms of dysphagia

You might have dysphagia if you notice any of these signs and symptoms: 

  • food or drink gets stuck in your throat or goes down the wrong way
  • eating your meal takes a long time (for example, more than 30 minutes)
  • you need to cough or clear your throat during or after eating and drinking
  • you have heartburn often
  • you feel short of breath when eating and drinking
  • you avoid some foods because you find them hard to swallow
  • you often get chest infections for no obvious reason

Babies that have difficulty sucking during breast or bottle feeding could have dysphagia.

Diagnosis of dysphagia

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, examine you and might also refer you for tests such as:

  • a barium swallow – swallowing a non-toxic substance called barium shows your upper digestive system on an x-ray
  • endoscopy – to view inside the oesophagus
  • muscle testing – to see if your oesophagus is working properly
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

Treatment for dysphagia

The most appropriate treatment for dysphagia will depend on its cause. Treatment can include:

  • changing the textures of your foods or drinks
  • learning new swallowing techniques, like where to place your food or body to help you swallow more effectively
  • doing exercises to help your muscles work better and stimulate nerves that trigger the swallowing reflex
  • taking medication to reduce stomach acid reflux or relax your oesophagus

In severe cases, you might need to change to a liquid diet, or have food and drink through a feeding tube that goes directly into your stomach.

You could see a range of health professionals for your dysphagia, including doctors, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, dietitians and lactation consultants. 

More information

For more information on dysphagia, see your doctor or a speech pathologist.

You can also contact the Stroke Foundation or mndcare.   

To check your symptoms, use healthdirect's online Symptom Checker.

Last reviewed: February 2018

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