Dysphagia is difficulty swallowing, which can affect your health and your quality of life.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia makes it hard to swallow food, fluids or, in some cases, saliva. As a result, dysphagia can cause weight loss, choking and regular chest infections. It can also make you feel awkward when you’re eating and drinking.

Although it can happen occasionally, dysphagia is usually a long-term (chronic) condition. It’s more likely to develop when you’re older, but dysphagia can affect adults and children of all ages.

Dysphagia tends to be the result of another health condition. Although it’s not always possible to cure dysphagia, in many cases, dysphagia symptoms can successfully be managed and improved.

How to tell if you have dysphagia

Difficulty swallowing is the main symptom of dysphagia. Other symptoms include:

  • Pain when swallowing
  • Coughing or gagging when eating or drinking
  • Frequent heartburn, including regularly regurgitating food or stomach acid
  • Drooling
  • The feeling that a piece of food is stuck in your throat

Children with dysphagia may show signs of delayed development and behavioural problems at mealtimes.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for dysphagia

If you’re having problems swallowing, pain when swallowing, or any other dysphagia symptoms, see your GP as soon as possible.

Your GP will discuss your dysphagia symptoms and examine your throat. To rule out or confirm possible causes of your dysphagia, they may refer you for tests, including:

  • Water swallow test – timing how long it takes for you to drink 150ml of water
  • Barium swallow/video fluoroscopy – an X-ray of barium-treated foods and liquids passing through your oesophagus (food pipe) and stomach
  • Monitoring the amount of acid in your oesophagus (to see if it’s coming up from your stomach)
  • Nasoendoscopy – examining your throat using a small flexible tube with a tiny camera attached
  • Diagnostic gastroscopy – examining your oesophagus and stomach using a small flexible tube with a tiny camera attached

If you’ve lost weight and your GP’s concerned that you might be malnourished, they may refer you to a dietitian. Your GP may also refer you to a consultant, perhaps a neurologist, a gastroenterologist or a geriatrician.

Causes of dysphagia

There are many different dysphagia causes, including:

Aspiration pneumonia is a serious complication of dysphagia caused by accidentally inhaling food, saliva or stomach acid. If you have dysphagia, seek immediate medical attention if:

  • Your voice sounds as though you’re gargling when you’re eating
  • You’re struggling for breath
  • You’re coughing when you’re eating

Common treatments for dysphagia

If you only have occasional dysphagia, try chewing your food slowly and properly before swallowing.

Chronic, persistent dysphagia requires medical attention. Your dysphagia treatment will depend on the condition that’s triggered your difficulty swallowing.

Once the condition causing your dysphagia’s been diagnosed, your GP or consultant will arrange your treatment, including dysphagia treatment.

Your GP or consultant may arrange speech and language therapy so you can learn different ways of swallowing. If you have severe dysphagia, they may suggest other treatments, such as surgery or alternative feeding methods.