What is Difficulty Swallowing?
Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) means it takes more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach. Dysphagia may also be associated with pain. In some cases, swallowing may be impossible.
Occasional difficulty swallowing, which may occur when you eat too fast or don’t chew your food well enough, usually isn’t cause for concern. But persistent dysphagia may indicate a serious medical condition requiring treatment.
How common is Difficulty Swallowing?
Difficulty swallowing is extremely common. It can occur in patients in any gender at any age. However, it’s more common in older adults. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
Which signs and symptoms can Difficulty Swallowing usually be associated with?
Related signs and symptoms include:
- Having pain while swallowing (odynophagia)
- Being unable to swallow
- Having the sensation of food getting stuck in your throat or chest or behind your breastbone (sternum)
- Being hoarse
- Bringing food back up (regurgitation)
- Having frequent heartburn
- Having food or stomach acid back up into your throat
- Unexpectedly losing weight
- Coughing or gagging when swallowing
- Having to cut food into smaller pieces or avoiding certain foods because of trouble swallowing
What causes Difficulty Swallowing?
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, there are 50 pairs of muscles and nerves used to help you swallow. In other words, there are lots of things that can go wrong and lead to problems swallowing. Some conditions include:
- Acid reflux and GERD: Acid reflux symptoms are caused when stomach contents flow up from the stomach back into the esophagus, causing symptoms like heartburn, stomach pain, and burping.
- Heartburn: Heartburn is a burning sensation in your chest that often occurs with a bitter taste in your throat or mouth.
- Epiglottitis: Epiglottitis is characterized by inflamed tissue in your epiglottis. It’s a potentially life-threatening condition. This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.
- Goiter: Your thyroid is a gland found in your neck just below your Adam’s apple. A condition that increases the size of your thyroid is called a goiter.
- Esophagitis: Esophagitis is inflammation of the esophagus that can be caused by acid reflux or certain medications.
- Esophageal cancer: Esophageal cancer occurs when a malignant (cancerous) tumor forms in the lining of the esophagus, which can cause difficulty swallowing.
- Stomach cancer (gastric adenocarcinoma): Stomach cancer occurs when cancerous cells form in the stomach lining. Because it’s difficult to detect, it’s often not diagnosed until it’s more advanced.
- Herpes esophagitis: Herpes esophagitis is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). The infection can cause some chest pain and difficulty swallowing.
- Recurrent herpes simplex labialis: Recurrent herpes simplex labialis, also known as oral or orolabial herpes, is an infection of the mouth area caused by the herpes simplex virus.
- Thyroid nodule: A thyroid nodule is a lump that can develop in your thyroid gland. It can be solid or filled with fluid. You can have a single nodule or a cluster of nodules. Learn what causes thyroid nodules and how they are treated.
- Infectious mononucleosis: Infectious mononucleosis, or mono, refers to a group of symptoms usually caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
- Snake bites: A bite from a venomous snake should always be treated as a medical emergency. Even a bite from a harmless snake can lead to an allergic reaction or infection.
The conditions shown above are some of the common causes of difficulty swallowing. Swallowing is complex, and a number of conditions can interfere with this process. Sometimes the cause of dysphagia can’t be identified. Consult with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
What increases my risk for Difficulty Swallowing?
There are many risk factors for difficulty swallowing, such as:
- Due to natural aging and normal wear and tear on the esophagus and a greater risk of certain conditions, such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease, older adults are at higher risk of swallowing difficulties. But, dysphagia isn’t considered a normal sign of aging.
- Certain health conditions. People with certain neurological or nervous system disorders are more likely to experience difficulty swallowing.
Please consult with your doctor for further information.
When to see your doctor
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you or your loved one has difficulty swallowing accompanied with weight loss, regurgitation or vomiting.
If an obstruction interferes with breathing, call for emergency help immediately. If you’re unable to swallow because you feel that the food is stuck in your throat or chest, go to the nearest emergency department.
On noticing one of these symptoms or having any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor to get the best solutions for your situation.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage difficulty swallowing?
These following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with difficulty swallowing:
- Positioning: Sit upright at a 90-degree angle. Tilt your head slightly forward. Remain sitting upright or standing for 15 to 20 minutes after eating a meal.
- Dining environment: Minimize distractions in the area where you eat. Stay focused on the tasks of eating and drinking. Do not talk with food in your mouth.
- Amount and rate: Eat slowly. Cut food into small pieces and chew it thoroughly. Chew food until it becomes liquid in your mouth before swallowing. Do not try to eat more than 1/2 teaspoon of food at a time.
- Swallowing: You may need to swallow two or three times per bite or sip. If food or liquid catches in your throat, cough gently or clear your throat, and swallow again before taking a breath. Repeat if necessary. Concentrate on swallowing frequently.
- Saliva management: Drink plenty of fluids. Periodically suck on Popsicles, ice chips or lemon ice, or drink lemon-flavored water to increase saliva production, which will increase swallowing frequency.
- Food consistency: Minimize or eliminate foods that are tough to chew and eat more soft foods. Puree food in a blender. If thin liquids cause you to cough, thicken them with a liquid thickener (your speech pathologist can recommend one for you). You can also substitute thicker liquids for thin ones, such as nectar for juice and cream soup for plain broth.
- Taking medications: Crush pills and mix them with applesauce or pudding. Ask your pharmacist for his or her recommendations on which pills should not be crushed and which medications can be purchased in a liquid form.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor for the best solutions.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Swallowing Problems. https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/swallowing-problems#2-3. Accessed December 10, 2018.
What Causes Difficulty in Swallowing? https://www.healthline.com/health/difficulty-in-swallowing. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Dysphagia. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dysphagia/symptoms-causes/syc-20372028. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Review Date: December 10, 2018 | Last Modified: December 10, 2018