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Overview of swallowing difficulties (dysphagia)

Tirohanga whānui ki ngā taumahatanga horomi

An older woman is having trouble swallowing her foodProblems with swallowing can be mild. For example, when food seems to take longer to pass through your food pipe (oesophagus). They can also be more severe. Like when you have trouble getting food and even fluids into your stomach.

The problem is usually in your food pipe. But it can be at the back of your mouth, caused by something pressing on your food pipe. It can also be a medical condition causing problems with coordinating swallowing.

Swallowing difficulties can be caused by a wide range of conditions, some of which can be serious.

Causes of swallowing difficulties

Swallowing difficulties are usually caused by another health condition. They can happen at any age.

Common causes of swallowing difficulties include:

Symptoms of swallowing difficulties

Symptoms can include:

You may also drool and have problems chewing your food.

Over time, swallowing difficulties can cause weight loss, dehydration and repeated chest infections.

Diagnosing swallowing difficulties

See your general practice team early if you have swallowing difficulties. This is so they can rule out a serious condition.

Your general practice team will ask you about your symptoms. They will also check any other health conditions you have that may be a cause.

They may refer you to a specialist for tests, which may include a gastroscopy. This is where a camera is passed down through your mouth to look at your food pipe and stomach.

They may also refer you to a speech-language therapist. The speech-language therapist will do a detailed assessment of your swallowing. This may include a videofluoroscopic swallowing study. In this study, your mouth and food pipe are X-rayed as you swallow small amounts of food and drink.

Treating swallowing difficulties

The treatment for swallowing difficulties depends on what is causing it and how severe it is.

Treatments include:

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Dietary suggestions for swallowing difficulties

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed July 2023.


See also:

Eating well for older people

Page reference: 797492

Review key: HISWD-121957