Swallowing Problems

What are swallowing problems?

Swallowing problems are problems with swallowing food or liquids. A problem may occur in the mouth or it may happen where the food pipe (esophagus) meets the stomach or anywhere in-between.

The medical term for swallowing problems is dysphagia.

What is the cause?

Swallowing moves food and liquids from the mouth into the stomach. It is a complex process. The tongue moves food and drink to the back of the mouth and into the throat, and the food and drink need to go into the food pipe and not the nearby windpipe. A flap in the throat protects the voice box and windpipe from the food or drink as it moves into the food pipe. The food pipe then pushes the food into the stomach.

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

  • An infection, like tonsillitis
  • Cancer of the throat or food pipe
  • Irritation of the food pipe by stomach acid
  • Diseases that weaken the muscles needed for swallowing
  • Stroke that has affected part of the brain
  • Injury of the mouth or neck
  • Eating a bone or large piece of food
  • Drinking poisonous fluid
  • Some medicines

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • 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 are they diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and give you an exam. Your provider may recommend an exam by an ear, nose and throat doctor or another specialist.

Tests may include:

  • An exam with a flexible scope with a light on the end to look into the throat and the food tube (upper gastrointestinal endoscopy)
  • X-rays that look at the throat and food tube while you swallow a liquid
  • Small tubes that you swallow so muscle strength of your food tube and acid levels can be measured (esophageal manometry and esophageal pH monitoring)

How are they treated?

The treatment of a swallowing problem depends on its cause. Sometimes the problem can be treated with medicine. For example, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic if you have an infection, or medicine to reduce acid levels if you have too much stomach acid.

A therapist may help you learn what types of food to eat and help you strengthen your swallowing muscles.

You may need surgery if cancer is causing the problem or a defect needs to be repaired or bypassed. If the swallowing problem cannot be fixed, you may have a feeding tube placed into your stomach.

How can I help prevent 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 up when you are eating. Don’t eat when you are lying down.
  • Keep household liquids, such as bleach, away from young children. The chemicals can burn the throat and cause swallowing problems.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-01-31
Last reviewed: 2014-04-21
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.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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