Dysphagia (swallowing problems) 

Introduction 

Difficulty swallowing is usually caused by another health condition 

Types of dysphagia

There are two types of dysphagia:

  • swallowing difficulties caused by problems with the mouth or throat (called oropharyngeal or high dysphagia) 
  • swallowing difficulties caused by problems with the oesophagus (called oesophageal or low dysphagia)

These types of dysphagia are often treated in different ways.

Dysphagia is the medical term for swallowing difficulties.

Some people with dysphagia have problems swallowing certain foods or liquids, while others cannot swallow at all.

Other signs of dysphagia include:

  • coughing or choking when eating or drinking
  • bringing food back up, sometimes through the nose
  • a sensation that food is stuck in the throat or chest 

Over time, dysphagia can also cause symptoms such as weight loss and repeated chest infections.

You should see your GP if you have any degree of swallowing difficulties.

Why does dysphagia happen?

Dysphagia is usually caused by another health condition, such as:

Dysphagia can also occur in children as a result of a developmental or learning disability.

Read more about the causes of dysphagia.

How is dysphagia treated?

Treatment usually depends on the cause and type of dysphagia. The specific type of dysphagia you have can usually be diagnosed after your ability to swallow has been tested and your oesophagus has been examined.

Treatments for dysphagia include:

  • speech and language therapy to learn new swallowing techniques 
  • changing the consistency of food and drinks to make them safer to swallow
  • alternative forms of feeding, such as tube feeding through the nose or stomach
  • treating the narrowing of the oesophagus with surgery, by stretching or inserting a metal tube

Many cases of dysphagia can improve with treatment, but a cure is not always possible.

Read more about diagnosing dysphasia and treating dysphagia.

Complications

Dysphagia can sometimes lead to further problems.

One of the most common problems is coughing or choking, when food goes down the "wrong way" and blocks your airway.

If this happens often, then you may try to avoid eating and drinking due to a fear of choking. However, this can lead to malnutrition and dehydration.

Some people with dysphagia have a tendency to develop chest infections, such as aspiration pneumonia, which may require medical treatment.

Dysphagia can also affect your quality of life because it may prevent you from enjoying meals and social occasions.

Read more about the complications of dysphagia.

Page last reviewed: 14/11/2012

Next review due: 14/11/2014

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