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What is dysphagia?

Dys means difficulty and phagia means swallowing. Therefore, Dysphagia is the medical term for ‘difficulty swallowing’ or swallowing problems. The process of swallowing prevents food/drink/medicines from entering the airway rather than the stomach. The term dysphagia is used by healthcare professionals to describe swallowing difficulties. Dysphagia (swallowing difficulties) can happen at any stage of swallowing from the time food/drink/medicines enter the mouth until it reaches the stomach. It can feel like something sticking in the back of your throat or chest whilst trying to swallow.

What are the symptoms of dysphagia?

One of the main symptoms of dysphagia is choking and /or coughing when trying to swallow. Other symptoms of swallowing difficulties include shortness of breath when trying to swallow and regurgitation. The voice may also sound bubbly.

If any of the following apply to you or someone you are caring for, let your doctor, nurse or pharmacist know, so that an alternative formulation can be prescribed (typically liquid medicine):

• find it hard to swallow tablets or capsules

• don’t take my medicine because I can’t face swallowing it

• need to crush my tablets or open capsules to make them easier to swallow

• need to break my tablet into smaller pieces so I can take it

• mix my medicine with food or drink to make it easier to take

• need to suck or chew my medicine before I can swallow it

What causes dysphagia?

• Swallowing difficulties can occur for a number of different reasons. These range from having a dry mouth, when there isn’t enough saliva to help the process of swallowing to a number of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone disease. Sometimes, a stroke many suddenly cause people to have difficulty swallowing.

The main types of immune cells are white blood cells. There are two types of white blood cells – lymphocytes and phagocytes. When we’re stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced. That is why we are more susceptible to infections. The stress hormone corticosteroid can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system (lowers the number of lymphocytes).

Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system as a person may use unhealthy behavioral coping strategies to reduce their stress, such as drinking and smoking. At this time, convenient and comfort foods are usually the order of the day; but, unfortunately, these are unlikely to contain the nutrients our body needs to calm our stress response. Stress is linked to: headaches; infectious illness (flu); cardiovascular disease; diabetes, asthma and gastric ulcers.

• Rarely, a medical prescription can cause swallowing difficulties as a side effect of the treatment.

Conditions that Cause Dysphagia

Young and old alike may find tablets or capsules hard to swallow, but some people are more likely to find it difficult than others:

Older people – around 60% of people over 60 have struggled to take solid medicines like tablets or capsules at some time

Dry mouth–getting older can mean less saliva in the mouth which makes swallowing tablets more difficult. Also some medicines can cause mouth dryness.

Stroke– after having a stroke, many people have swallowing difficulties at least for the first few months. In the early stages of stroke, nearly 80% of patients will have some sort of swallowing problem

Other diseases – such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Motor Neurone disease can all affect a person’s ability to swallow solid medicines, for example around 50% of people with Parkinson’s disease will have some d

Diabetes– people with long term diabetes may develop some degree of swallowing problems

Throat or neck problems - tumors or radiotherapy in this area can lead to swallowing difficulties

Children – there is no set age at which children are able to swallow solid medicines, but some can struggle until they reach their early teens and even beyond!