Dysphagia is a term that refers to “difficulty swallowing”, meaning it takes more time and effort for food or liquid to move from the mouth to the stomach. It can occur at any age thought it is more common in older adults. Dysphagia isn’t usually a cause for concern and may occur when an individual eats too fast or doesn’t chew food well enough. It may also be associated with pain where in some cases, swallowing may be impossible. When this occurs, seeking medical attention is required.



Signs and symptoms of dysphagia may include the following:

  • Pain while swallowing
  • Inability to swallow
  • Drooling
  • Hoarse voice
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Sensation of food stuck in the throat
  • Stomach acid
  • Weight loss
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing



There are a number of factors that can cause difficulty swallowing. Two categories associated with dysphagia are: Esophageal dysphagia and Oropharyngeal dysphagia.

Esophageal dysphagia refers to the sensation of food sticking in the base of the throat or in the chest after swallowing. Some of the causes of esophageal dysphagia include:

  • Achalasia: A condition that causes weakening of the muscles in the wall of the esophagus
  • Diffuse spasm: A condition that causes high pressure and poorly corresponding contractions of the esophagus
  • Esophageal stricture: A condition that causes thinning of the esophagus
  • Foreign bodies: The lodging of food particles in the throat or esophagus
  • Esophageal ring: A thin area of narrowing in the lower esophagus
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): A condition that causes buildup of stomach acid in the esophagus
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis: A condition related to food allergy
  • Scleroderma: A condition that causes stiffening and hardening of tissues and weakening of the lower esophageal sphinceter
  • Radiation therapy: A procedure that requires the use of high powered beams to destroy cancer cells
  • Esophageal tumors

Oropharyngeal dysphagia refers to abnormalities of muscles, nerves or structures of the oral cavity, pharynx, and upper esophageal sphincter. Some of the causes of oropharyngeal dysphagia include:

  • Neurological disorders: Multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease
  • Neurological damage: Stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury
  • Pharyngeal diverticula:  The collection of food particles in a small sac
  • Cancer


Risk factors

Factors associated with the risk of developing dysphagia include:

  • Aging  (older adults are at higher risk of swallowing difficulties)
  • Certain medical conditions (neurological or nervous system disorders)



Possible complications that can arise from difficulty swallowing include the following:

  • Malnutrition: Not getting enough nutrients in the body
  • Weight loss: Inability to take in foods and liquids
  • Dehydration: Inadequate fluid intake
  • Respiratory problems: Appearance of pneumonia or other respiratory infections



Although swallowing difficulties cannot be prevented, by eating slowly and chewing food properly, risk of developing dysphagia can be reduced. Also, early detection and effective treatment of symptoms of GERD can lower risk of developing dysphagia.