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Coping with Swallowing Problems

As you go through daily life, swallowing is as common as breathing. You rarely give it a second thought as you swallow hundreds of times each day.

Swallowing problems can happen for reasons ranging from dehydration to illness. Most cases don't last long. But sometimes you might need medical treatment or special home care. If you have trouble swallowing, it's important to be evaluated by your healthcare provider. In some cases, swallowing difficulties may be caused by serious problems.

Why swallowing problems happen

In most cases, swallowing problems aren’t serious. Swallowing problems have many causes. These include dehydration, or not chewing long enough, or taking bites of food that are too big. Other swallowing problems stem from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This happens when bile or stomach acid flows back into your food pipe (esophagus).. Many medicines cause trouble swallowing. These include nitrates, calcium channel blockers, doxycycline, aspirin, NSAIDs, potassium, iron tablets, and vitamin C. Other causes include allergies and even the common cold.

In rare cases, swallowing problems are tied to a serious illness. For example, a stroke, Parkinson disease, or late-stage Alzheimer disease can make it hard to swallow and possibly lead to choking. Diabetes, thyroid disease, a tumor in the mouth or throat, or high blood pressure could be to blame. So could problems with your vocal cords. Other things that can affect how you swallow include insertion of a breathing tube (tracheotomy), oral or throat surgery, or radiation treatment. Narrowing of the esophagus because of cancer, GERD, or other illness can also cause swallowing difficulties. An allergic condition called eosinophilic esophagitis often causes trouble swallowing. Trouble with how the esophagus contracts can cause the problem, too. 

Symptoms of swallowing problems

Be aware of these signs of swallowing difficulties:

  • Feeling of a lump in your throat

  • Hoarseness

  • Feeling that food or liquid is stuck in your throat or behind your breastbone

  • Pain or tightness in your throat or chest

  • Weight loss or not getting the nutrition you need because of trouble swallowing

  • Choking or coughing caused by bits of food or drink that get caught in your throat

  • Drooling

Who is at risk for swallowing problems?

Risk factors for swallowing problems include chronic conditions such as Parkinson disease, Alzheimer, a stroke, GERD, or allergies. Other risk factors include damage to your esophagus from a tracheotomy, throat surgery, or radiation treatment.

How the underlying problem is found

A swallowing problem may be a symptom of an underlying problem. Your healthcare provider will take a full health history and give you a physical exam. He or she may order tests including an endoscopy. This is an exam done by a gastroenterologist. He or she puts a thin tube into your esophagus and stomach. This is done to look for changes in your esophagus and to take tissue samples (a biopsy) if needed. Another way to find out what the problem could be is a barium swallow. For this test, X-rays are taken while you swallow a barium solution. Sometimes a video is made while you swallow different liquids, with a specially trained swallow therapist present. Other tests may include motility testing to find out if your esophagus is contracting and relaxing correctly.

How the problem is treated

Treatment will be based on the underlying cause of your swallowing problem. Treatment may include lifestyle changes or medicines, or working with a speech or occupational therapist. In rare cases you may need surgery. 

When to call the healthcare provider

Swallowing problems are rarely serious. So it can be hard to know when to seek help. Contact your healthcare provider:

  • If the problem doesn’t clear up quickly

  • If you have food stuck in your throat

  • If swallowing problems cause you to choke, cough, or have trouble breathing

  • If you’re losing weight or having trouble eating 

What you can do about swallowing problems

If your swallowing problems are not linked to a more serious illness, you can take some simple steps at home to make eating and drinking more effort-free.

If your problems stem from GERD, try taking antacids to control your acid reflux symptoms. Prop up the head of your bed. Eat smaller meals, and don't have any food for about 3 hours before going to sleep. Tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine are also linked to GERD. Not having them may help, too. Obesity and stress are linked to GERD. So exercise and stress-busting activities like yoga may cut down on your symptoms. 

The way you eat and drink can cause swallowing problems. Take smaller bites and chew thoroughly. Eat more slowly to make swallowing easier.

A speech or occupational therapist can help you relearn how to swallow if your problem was caused by nervous system damage from a stroke. A specialist can also teach feeding methods for eating problems caused by Alzheimer disease. These include using a smaller spoon. Also adding a special thickener to liquids, especially water, can make it easier to drink something without choking.

Your swallowing problems may come from another type of serious illness, such as cancer. Then you may need a comprehensive treatment plan with medicine or possibly surgery.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jen Lehrer MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Tennille Dozier RN BSN RDMS
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2018
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