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Swallowing Problems

What are swallowing problems?

Swallowing problems are problems with swallowing food or liquids. They can occur in the mouth or where the food tube (esophagus) meets the stomach, or anywhere in-between. The medical term for swallowing problems is dysphagia.

How do they occur?

Swallowing moves food or drink from the mouth into the stomach. It is a complex process. Breathing follows some of the same path that food and liquids follow when you eat or drink. Normal swallowing needs to direct food and drink into the food tube and away from the windpipe. Food or drink are moved by the tongue to the back of the mouth and into the throat. There is a flap that protects the voice box and windpipe from the food or drink as it moves into the food tube. The food tube pushes the food into the stomach.

Many different things can cause problems with swallowing. For example, it may be caused by:

  • an infection, like tonsillitis
  • cancer of the throat or food tube
  • irritation of the food tube by stomach acid
  • diseases that weaken the muscles needed for swallowing
  • stroke that has affected a certain part of the brain
  • injury of the mouth or neck
  • a bone or large piece of food that was eaten
  • toxic fluid that was drunk
  • some medicines.

What are the symptoms?

Possible symptoms are:

  • throat or chest pain when you swallow
  • coughing or choking during or after swallowing
  • a feeling that food is sticking in your throat
  • the need to clear your throat often
  • hoarseness or a change in your voice
  • food or drink coming out of your nose when you swallow
  • the need to drink fluid to get food down the throat

Sometimes the only symptom of a swallowing problem may be that you are losing weight because you are eating less food and getting less nourishment.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and give you an exam. Your provider may recommend including an ear, nose and throat doctor or a gastroenterologist in your evaluation.

Tests may include:

  • an exam with a flexible scope with a light on the end to look into the throat and the food tube
  • X-rays that look at the throat and food tube while you swallow a liquid
  • small tubes that you swallow so muscle strength of the food tube and acid levels can be measured.

How are they treated?

The treatment of a swallowing problem depends on its cause. Sometimes only medicine is needed. For example, your provider may prescribe an antibiotic if you have an infection, or medicine to reduce acid levels if your acid levels are too high.

A special therapist may work with you to teach you what types of food to eat and to help you strengthen your swallowing muscles.

Surgery may be needed if cancer is causing the problem or if a defect needs to be repaired or bypassed. In cases where the swallowing problem cannot be fixed, a special feeding tube may placed into the stomach.

How can I avoid swallowing problems?

  • Don’t talk at the same time you are chewing food or drinking.
  • Take small bites and chew well before you try to swallow your food.
  • Sit upright when you are eating. Do not eat when you are lying down.
  • Keep household liquids such as bleach away from young children. These chemicals can burn the throat and cause swallowing problems.
Written by Sharee Wiggins, ARNP, MSN, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-29
Last reviewed: 2010-12-06
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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