Swallowing problems (dysphagia)

Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing. Some people with dysphagia have problems swallowing certain foods or liquids, while others can't swallow at all. You should see your GP if you are having problems swallowing.

Signs of swallowing problems 

As well as problems swallowing certain foods and liquids, other signs of dysphagia include:

  • coughing or choking when eating or drinking
  • bringing food back up, sometimes through the nose
  • a sensation that food is stuck in your throat or chest
  • persistent drooling of saliva 

Over time, dysphagia can also cause symptoms such as weight loss and repeated chest infections.

You should see your GP if you have any problems with swallowing.

Causes of dysphagia 

Dysphagia is usually caused by another health condition, such as:

Dysphagia can also occur in children as the result of a developmental or learning disability.

Dysphagia can be caused by problems with the:

  • mouth or throat, known as oropharyngeal or "high" dysphagia
  • oesophagus (the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach), known as oesophageal or "low" dysphagia

Treating dysphagia 

Treatment usually depends on the cause and type of dysphagia. The type of dysphagia you have can usually be diagnosed after testing your swallowing ability and examining your oesophagus.

Many cases of dysphagia can be improved with treatment, but a cure isn't always possible. Your GP will talk to you about the best treatment for you.

Complications of dysphagia 

Dysphagia can sometimes lead to further problems. One of the most common problems is coughing or choking when food goes down the "wrong way" and blocks your airway.

If this occurs a lot, you may avoid eating and drinking because you fear choking, which can lead to malnutrition and dehydration.

Some people with dysphagia have a tendency to develop chest infections, such as aspiration pneumonia, which require medical treatment.


The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed November 2018

This page is due for review May 2021

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