What is dysphagia and what can cause it?
  Woman with no appetite  

If you’re struggling to swallow your food or find yourself choking whenever you try to take your tablet medication, you could be suffering from dysphagia.


Dysphagia can be caused by lots of different health conditions, and could leave you suffering with malnutrition or dehydration.


If you’re not sure whether you or someone you love may be suffering with dysphagia, keep reading as we break down what dysphagia means, what causes it, and what you can do to treat it.


What is dysphagia?


Dysphagia (pronounced dis-fey-jee-uh) is a health condition that causes people to have trouble swallowing.


Some sufferers may only struggle to swallow certain things, like hard food, certain drinks, or tablet medications, but others may not be able to swallow anything at all.


What are the symptoms of dysphagia?


The main symptom of dysphagia is that you will have difficulty swallowing. As I mentioned earlier, you may not be able to swallow anything at all, but you may just struggle to swallow certain things.


If there’s one thing in particular that you just can’t swallow, such as tablets or pills, then you could have dysphagia.


There are a few other symptoms that you can look for if you think you may have dysphagia, such as:


  • Choking when you eat and drink
  • Coughing when you try to swallow
  • Feeling like food is stuck in your throat or chest
  • Feeling like there is a lump in your throat
  • Bringing food back up, sometimes through your nose
  • Heartburn or acid reflux
  • Having a gurgling or wet sounding voice when eating or drinking
  • Hoarseness
  • Drooling a lot and struggling to control saliva in the mouth
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration or malnutrition


Some people with dysphagia may also develop lung infections such as pneumonia. This happens when patients accidentally inhale food particles or saliva as they struggle to swallow their food or drink.




What causes dysphagia?


Dysphagia rarely just happens on its own and is usually caused by another health condition that can affect your ability to swallow.


For example, conditions that affect your nervous system can cause dysphagia, as the process of swallowing is more complex than you might think, and uses needs lots of different nerves to work properly.


Dysphagia can also be caused by conditions that block your mouth or throat, such as certain cancers or infections that cause inflammation.


Some of the health conditions that can cause dysphagia include:


  • Stroke
  • Head injuries
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Motor Neurone disease
  • Cancer – especially mouth cancer, throat cancer, or other cancers that affect a similar area
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease or GORD – A disease which causes repeated heartburn or acid reflux
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Brain tumours


Children can develop dysphagia in the same way as adults, usually because of another health condition.


When dysphagia develops in children, it can be caused by learning or developmental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy.



Can you get dysphagia after a stroke?


You can get dysphagia after a stroke, as a stroke can cause brain injuries which can cause conditions like dysphagia to develop.


A stroke can cause damage that leads to an interruption in your normal swallowing reflex, leaving you with dysphagia.


When you have a stroke, the blood supply to your brain is cut off, depriving your brain of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function and killing braincells in the process.


This is how a stroke causes disabilities and health conditions like dysphagia, and is why some people need long term care as they recover from a stroke.



Dysphagia treatment


Dysphagia can be treated, but your treatment will differ depending on whether your dysphagia is in your mouth and throat or your oesophagus, and what caused your dysphagia in the first place.


Let’s take a look at your options for both kinds of dysphagia.


Dysphagia in your mouth and throat


If your dysphagia is in your mouth and throat, your doctor may refer you to a speech and language therapist (SLT), who can help you to change the way you swallow.


This is called swallowing therapy, and can include swallowing exercises that you may need to do on a daily basis.


Your SLT will tailor your treatment to you, helping you to understand why you have dysphagia and what the best way to treat it will be.


Your SLT can also help you by looking at your diet, looking at which foods and drinks you struggle to swallow and what you can do to change this.


If you’re struggling to swallow anything at all, you may need to use a feeding tube as you recover from your dysphagia.


This will help to ensure that you are getting the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy during your recovery, avoiding dehydration and malnutrition.


Feeding tubes can be used for long-term or short-term dysphagia, but they are something that your doctor will discuss with you thoroughly before you begin to use one.



Dysphagia in your oesophagus


Dysphagia in the oesophagus is often caused by a blockage that keeps food or drink stuck as you try to swallow it.


Sometimes, you may be able to treat dysphagia in your oesophagus with medication, which can help to reduce scarring and clear the blockage.


If medication won’t help, you may have to have surgery to widen your oesophagus so that your food and drink has enough room to pass through without difficulty.


Alternatively, you may have to have a stent fitted. A stent is mesh tube that is fitted into your oesophagus, slowly widening and stretching your oesophagus from the inside.


This treatment is often used for those who have oesophageal cancer, as widening your oesophagus with surgery when you have cancer can lead to perforation.



Dysphagia home treatment


There aren’t any home remedies for dysphagia, as it may need to be treated differently depending on the cause of your condition.


However, if you are struggling to swallow solid medicines, such as tablets, pills, or capsules, there is a swallowing aid that you can use to take your medication.


Med-Easy works by covering your solid medication in a liquid, which some people with dysphagia find easier to swallow.


It helps your medicine to flow freely into the oesophagus, so you can take the medication you need without having to worry about swallowing difficulties, ideal for those who need to take medication for dysphagia.



Dysphagia diet


If you see a speech and language therapist when you have dysphagia, they may recommend changes to your diet that could make it easier for you to swallow.


As well as ensuring that you eat a balanced diet that will help you to get all of the nutrients you need, your SLT may also suggest that you switch to softer foods that could be easier to swallow.  



If you’re not sure whether you have swallowing difficulties or still have questions about dysphagia, why not give our friendly Chemist 4 U pharmacists a call?


We’re on hand to answer your questions, any time. We’re always happy to hear from you and help you with your medical problems, so don’t be shy!


Give us a call or send us a message, we promise we won’t bite!


Laura Henderson - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 22 September 2021
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