Difficulty swallowing simply refers to a problem in which a person takes a longer time and more effort to move fluids or food from his or mouth to the stomach. Difficulty swallowing may also arise due to pain. Sometimes, the person may not be able to swallow food or liquid at all.
In some cases, difficulty swallowing is not a cause for concern as it may occur due to eating too quickly or not chewing enough. However, if difficulty swallowing is persistent, it may indicate an underlying medical condition that requires prompt diagnosis and treatment.
Difficulty in swallowing is a problem that may occur at any age; however, it is more likely to occur in older adults. The exact cause of the condition may vary amongst individuals and treatment normally depends on the underlying cause.
Signs and symptoms
Signs and symptoms of difficulty swallowing may include:
- Pain while swallowing
- Inability to swallow
- Feeling of food getting stuck in the throat, chest or behind the sternum (chest bone)
- Frequent heartburn
- Unexplained weight loss
- Regurgitation – food comes back up
- Gagging or coughing while swallowing
- Stomach acids or food backing up in the throat
For infants and young children, signs and symptoms may include:
- Lack of attention during meals
- Stressing the body while feeding
- Refusing to consume foods of varying textures
- Problems with breast-feeding
- Unusually lengthy feeding or meal times
- Drooling or food or liquid draining from the mouth
- Vomiting or spiting up food during feeding
- Choking or coughing p food during feeding
- Weight loss or slow growth or slow weight gain
- Breathing difficulty while eating or drinking
- Recurrent pneumonia
When to seek medical attention
- Obstruction. This may interfere with normal breathing, therefore call for emergency medical attention immediately. If the obstruction prevents you from swallowing, go to the nearest hospital ER immediately.
- Persistent difficulty swallowing. Occasional or mild difficulty swallowing is not a he problem, however, if the problem is persistent or accompanies other issues like regurgitation, vomiting or weight loss; see your doctor as soon as possible.
- Difficulty swallowing in children. If your child is suffering from difficulty swallowing, see a doctor immediately.
For severe or persistent difficulty swallowing see your doctor as soon as possible for a diagnosis and treatment as treatment usually depends on the underlying cause of the problem.
For mild cases of difficulty swallowing, the following self-treatment methods may help.
- Changes in eating habits. Have smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. Cut the food you eat into small pieces, chew properly and eat more slowly.
- Consume foods of different textures and see which foods cause more problems. Sometimes thin fluids such as juice or coffee may result in difficulty swallowing in some people. Sticky foods such as caramel and peanut butter can also give rise to this problem.
- Avoid tobacco, alcohol and caffeine. These agents worsen heartburn.