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Dysphagia (Swallowing Problems)

Difficulty swallowing is also called dysphagia. It is usually a sign of a problem with your throat or esophagus—the muscular tube that moves food and liquids from the back of your mouth to your stomach. Although dysphagia can happen to anyone, it is most common in older adults, babies, and people who have problems of the brain or nervous system.

There are many different problems that can prevent the throat or esophagus from working properly. Some of these are minor, and others are more serious. If you have a hard time swallowing once or twice, you probably do not have a medical problem. But if you have trouble swallowing on a regular basis, you may have a more serious problem that needs treatment.

  • Symptoms

    What are the symptoms of swallowing problems?

    Symptoms of swallowing problems may include:

    • Trouble getting food or liquids to go down on the first try.
    • Gagging, choking, or coughing when you swallow.
    • Having food or liquids come back up through your throat, mouth, or nose after you swallow.
    • Feeling like foods or liquids are stuck in some part of your throat or chest.
    • Pain when you swallow.
  • Causes

    What are the symptoms of swallowing problems?

    Symptoms of swallowing problems may include:

    • Trouble getting food or liquids to go down on the first try.
    • Gagging, choking, or coughing when you swallow.
    • Having food or liquids come back up through your throat, mouth, or nose after you swallow.
    • Feeling like foods or liquids are stuck in some part of your throat or chest.
    • Pain when you swallow.
  • Diagnosis

    How are swallowing problems diagnosed?

    A doctor or speech therapist will examine you to check for swallowing problems. You may get swallowing tests to check how well your throat muscles work. For these tests, you swallow a special liquid that helps the doctor see your throat and esophagus on an X-ray or video screen.

    Other tests use a thin, flexible tube called a scope to check for problems with your esophagus. The doctor puts the scope in your mouth and down your throat to look at your esophagus.

  • Treatment

    How are swallowing problems treated?

    How swallowing problems are treated depends on the cause. The main goals of treatment will be to help you eat and swallow safely and get good nutrition. This is important for your health and quality of life.

    You may learn exercises to train your throat muscles to work together so you’re able to swallow better. Learning certain ways to put food in your mouth or to position your head while eating may also help.

    Your doctor or a speech therapist may recommend changes to your diet to help make it easier to swallow. You may need to avoid certain foods or liquids. You also may need to change the thickness of foods or liquids in your diet.

    To eat and swallow safely, follow any instructions you get from your doctor or therapist. These ideas may help:

    • Sit upright when eating, drinking, and taking pills.
    • Take small bites of food. Chew completely and swallow before taking another bite.
    • Take small sips of liquids.
    • If eating makes you tired, eat smaller but more frequent meals.
    • Tip your chin down when there is food in your mouth.

    Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.