What Causes Swallowing Difficulty?

Difficulty in swallowing, or dysphagia refers to the feeling of difficulty passing food or liquid through the throat to the stomach. Trouble swallowing is common in all age groups, especially the elderly.


People with difficulty in swallowing often have below feelings.

  • drooling
  • a feeling that food or liquid is sticking in the throat
  • having pain while swallowing
  • discomfort in the throat or chest (when gastro esophageal reflux is present)
  • a sensation of a foreign body or “lump” in the throat
  • weight loss and inadequate nutrition due to prolonged or more significant problems with swallowing
  • coughing or choking caused by bits of food, liquid, or saliva not passing easily during swallowing, and being sucked into the lungs
  • voice change


The process of swallowing has four related stages:

  • Stage 1 – food or liquid is manipulated and chewed in preparation for swallowing.
  • Stage 2 – the tongue propels the food or liquid to the back of the mouth, starting the swallowing response.
  • Stage 3 – food or liquid is quickly passed through the pharynx, the region of the throat which connects the mouth with the esophagus, then into the esophagus or swallowing tube.
  • Stage 4 – the food or liquid passes through the esophagus into the stomach.

Common causes to trouble swallowing include:

  • gastro esophageal reflux
  • poor teeth
  • ill fitting dentures
  • a common cold
  • hypertension
  • diabetes
  • thyroid disease
  • stroke
  • progressive neurologic disorder
  • tumor in mouth, throat, or esophagus
  • cancer treatment


Difficulty in swallowing can cause malnutrition, weight loss and dehydration. If food or drink goes into your airway it may cause aspiration pneumonia. Choking also occurs in people with swallowing difficulty.

Swallowing difficulty isn’t usually an emergency, however when an obstruction interferes with breathing, call for emergency help immediately.

Eat Tips

  • Eat soft, smooth foods, such as yogurt or pudding, avoid dry, coarse, or hard foods
  • Mash or blend foods. Or moisten dry foods with broth, sauce, butter, or milk.
  • Try thickening liquids.
  • Use a straw to drink liquids and soft foods.
  • Eat cold or room-temperature foods to reduce pain.
  • Take small bites, and chew slowly and thoroughly.
  • Sit upright when eating or drinking.
  • Eat small, frequent meals.
  • Avoid foods that need a lot of chewing.
  • Drink meal replacement or nutritional supplement beverages.


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