Dysphagia is where you have problems swallowing. It's usually caused by certain medicines or another condition, such as acid reflux or a stroke.
Check if it's dysphagia
Some people with dysphagia have problems swallowing certain foods or drinks, while others cannot swallow at all.
Signs of dysphagia include:
- coughing or choking when eating or drinking
- bringing food back up, sometimes through the nose
- a feeling that food is stuck in your throat or chest
- a gurgly, wet-sounding voice when eating or drinking
You may also drool and have problems chewing your food.
Over time, dysphagia can also cause symptoms such as weight loss, dehydration and repeated chest infections.
Causes of dysphagia
Dysphagia is usually caused by another health condition and can happen at any age.
Common causes of swallowing problems include:
- some medicines, such as antipsychotics
- having a learning disability
- a cleft lip and palate in babies
- heartburn and acid reflux, especially in children or people who have gastro-oesophageal reflux disease
- problems with your breathing caused by conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- a condition that affects the nervous system or brain, such as cerebral palsy, a stroke, dementia or multiple sclerosis
- cancer, such as mouth cancer or oesophageal cancer
Urgent advice: Ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111 if:
You, your child or someone you care for:
- has difficulty swallowing
- coughs or chokes while eating or drinking
- feels like something's stuck in the throat after eating
- keeps bringing food or milk back up, sometimes through the nose
- cries a lot or arches their back when feeding
- has a wet, gurgly voice after eating or drinking
- is short of breath after eating or drinking
- gets lots of chest infections
You can call 111 or get help from 111 online.
Treatments for dysphagia
Your GP will examine you and may refer you to a specialist for further tests.
You may also be referred to a speech and language therapist or a dietitian for advice about swallowing and your diet.
Treatment for dysphagia depends on what's causing it and how severe it is.
If your swallowing problems are being caused by a condition like acid reflux, the problem may get better on its own.
But if the cause is longer term, you may need specialist treatment to make eating and drinking as safe as possible.
This may include:
- medicines to treat acid reflux
- swallowing therapy with a speech and language therapist
- making changes to what you eat and drink, such as softer foods and using thickener in drinks
- using special spoons, plates and cups
- feeding tubes through your nose or a hole into your stomach
- surgery to widen your oesophagus
- injections to relax the muscles in your oesophagus and allow food and drink to reach the stomach
Page last reviewed: 02 May 2023
Next review due: 02 May 2026