Everything you should know about dysphagia

Two women talking in a garden

People living with swallowing difficulty may be diagnosed as having dysphagia.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at this condition, what causes it, and how it may be treated.

What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia is a medical term that refers to swallowing difficulties. People who are unable to swallow, or have problems in doing so, may have dysphagia.

It is a potentially serious condition and can cause particular health problems such as aspiration pneumonia, malnutrition and dehydration, as well as death from choking.

What are the symptoms of dysphagia?

The symptoms of dysphagia can vary, depending on the cause and how severely the person is affected. The symptoms can include:

  • Being unable to swallow safely
  • Having difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • Coughing or choking when eating
  • Bringing food or liquids back up
  • A feeling that you have food stuck in your throat or oesophagus (globus sensation)
  • An inability to chew effectively
  • Drooling when eating
  • A gurgling sound in your voice or noisy and wheezy breathing during or after eating or drinking

If you or someone you are caring for shows any of these symptoms, you should seek medical advice from a healthcare professional.

What are the causes of dysphagia?

The term dysphagia refers to a specific issue, but it can actually be caused by a wide variety of conditions. These include:

  • Stroke
  • Dementia
  • Progressive neurological conditions, such as Multiple Sclerosis, Motor Neurone Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, etc.
  • Cancer of the mouth, throat or oesophagus
  • Head trauma or injury
  • Conditions that affect the throat or oesophagus, such as pharyngeal pouch or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD)
  • Disorders of oesophageal motility
  • Anxiety or phobia of swallowing (phagophobia)

People may also suffer from chewing and swallowing difficulties only temporarily – perhaps after oral or dental surgery, for example.

How is dysphagia treated?

Although dysphagia cannot always be cured, it can be managed and in some cases the symptoms reduced. Some people may be able to return to a regular diet and fluid intake.

There are a couple of ways that dysphagia may be treated:

  • Surgery – those with severe swallowing problems may require a surgical procedure to reduce or resolve the problem
  • Speech and Language Therapycertain exercises and techniques can help dysphagia sufferers to regain or improve their swallowing ability

How can people with swallowing difficulties reduce discomfort?

If you or someone you care for has swallowing difficulties, you should seek medical advice in the first instance. You may be advised to follow some of the following suggestions to ease discomfort.

  • Sit upright – when eating, sit at a table and keep your body at a 90° angle with your head tilted slightly forward; this will help the food move through your throat more effectively
  • Try softer foods – pureed or softer foods, such as BirdsEye Soft Meals, can be easier to swallow and chew, and may be beneficial for those with difficulties
  • Swallow with a drink – keeping the mouth hydrated during mealtimes can act as a lubricant, which may make it easier to swallow
  • Chew smaller pieces – smaller pieces of food are easier to chew, so cut larger pieces down before eating, chew thoroughly and eat more slowly

What other support is available for people with swallowing difficulties?

For those who do suffer from dysphagia and swallowing difficulties, there are several information outlets.

You can also keep up to date here at the Alimento Knowledge Hub, where we share information to help those with swallowing difficulties.

Remember to seek medical help

To reiterate, if you or someone you care for develops chewing or swallowing problems, seek medical advice in the first instance. You should consult a Healthcare or Medical Professional about your personal circumstances and before making any changes to your diet.