Dysphagia (Adult)

Dysphagia is trouble swallowing. If you have dysphagia, you may have symptoms that include:

  • Choking or coughing when you eat or drink

  • Food getting stuck

  • Drooling

  • Inability to swallow

  • Pain behind the breastbone after swallowing

  • Vomiting after you eat or drink

  • Inhaling into the lungs (aspirating) foods or liquids when you swallow

The main causes of dysphagia are problems that affect the mouth, throat or tongue. Dysphagia may be caused by a problem with the tube (esophagus) that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. These include blockage, swelling, or irritation from acid reflux or injury. An infection of the esophagus or an allergic reaction in the esophagus can also cause dysphagia. Problems in the brain, such as a stroke or Parkinson disease, can affect the muscles that coordinate swallowing.

Dysphagia is treated by treating the cause. Your healthcare provider may assess you using X-ray, special esophagus monitors, a fiber optic look at swallowing, or an upper endoscopy. This test uses a thin, lighted tube (catheter) sent through your mouth to the esophagus. You may be given medicine to reduce stomach acid or control muscle spasms. If the problem doesn't go away, you may have a procedure to widen (dilate) the esophagus. If you have muscle or nerve problems, you may be advised to see a speech or occupational therapist. They may give you exercises and instructions to help make eating safer. If you have an infection or allergic condition, your healthcare provide will prescribe medicine for it.

Front view of man showing respiratory and upper digestive anatomy.

Home care

To help ease the symptoms of dysphagia:

  • Take any medicine you’ve been given exactly as directed. Ask for thickened liquid medicines if you need them.

  • To make eating easier:

    • Eat slowly. 

    • Eat in a relaxed setting.

    • Don’t talk while you eat.

    • Take small bites. Chew slowly and completely before you swallow.

    • Sit upright during and after meals. Chewing food releases enzymes in your mouth that start the digestive process. Chew soft foods at least 5 to10 times. Chew more dense food such as meats and vegetables up to 30 times before swallowing. Count the number of times you chew until you get a sense of how soft the food needs to be before swallowing.

    • Don't eat dry bread products or meat fibers.

    • Puree solid foods if needed. Thicken liquids with milk, juice, broth, gravy, or starch to make them easier to swallow.

    • Ask your healthcare provider if a liquid diet may be better for you.

    • Ask for a referral to a nutritionist if you are losing weight or having trouble getting enough food each day

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider or as directed. Your healthcare provider can give you information about tests you may need. 

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away for any of the following:

  • Inability to keep down food or liquid

  • Symptoms get worse quickly

  • Coughing that won't stop

  • Continuing to lose weight

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your provider

  • Other symptoms as directed by your provider

Call 911

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Inability to talk

  • Drooling, inability to control secretions

  • Loss of consciousness

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