Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)

This is a page about eating and swallowing difficulties, which are sometimes called dysphagia. 

Find out more about what dysphagia is, what causes it and how it’s usually treated. 

Get support from Sense

We offer support for disabled people all over the UK. Many of the people we support have dysphagia.

To find out what kind of support we could give you or your loved one with complex disabilities, speak to one of our friendly team.

On this page:

What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia is a medical term for difficulty swallowing. 

It can mean that you have difficulty swallowing food, drinks or saliva, or even that you struggle to swallow at all. 

This could be caused by many different possible problems with the mouth, throat or oesophagus (the muscular tube that takes food from your mouth to your stomach). 

Dysphagia is usually a symptom of an underlying condition, but sometimes it is diagnosed as a condition in its own right. 

Symptoms of dysphagia

Dysphagia symptoms look different for everyone.

Some common signs of dysphagia are:

  • Feeling like food is caught in your throat or chest.
  • Frequently coughing or choking when you eat.
  • Drooling.
  • Having a hoarse or wet-sounding voice when you eat.
  • Pain when swallowing.
  • Food coming back up, either through your mouth or nose.
  • Heartburn.
  • Unplanned weight loss.
  • Repeated chest infections or pneumonia. 

Signs of dysphagia in children and babies

In addition to the above, these are some signs that your child might be having difficulty swallowing:

  • Stiffening or arching their body while they’re eating.
  • Taking a long time to eat their food.
  • Often having a congested chest or chest infections.
  • Struggling to coordinate sucking and swallowing.
  • Making several attempts to swallow one mouthful of food. 
  • Refusing to eat certain foods. 

What causes dysphagia?

Dysphagia can be caused by a huge range of conditions, illnesses and impairments. 

It might be caused by a problem with the brain, which interferes with the nerves that you need for swallowing. 

Or it might be caused by a physical obstruction or difference in your mouth, throat or oesophagus.

Some common underlying causes of dysphagia include:

  • Learning disabilities.
  • Being born prematurely.
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD).
  • Cleft lip and/or palate.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Cerebral palsy. 
  • Poor or tight muscles in the jaw, mouth or tongue.
  • Mouth or throat cancer. 

Types of dysphagia

Difficulty swallowing can happen at different stages. 

This is because swallowing happens in three key steps:

  • Oral (in your mouth).
  • Pharyngeal (in your throat).
  • Oesophageal (in your oesophagus). 

These are the most common types of dysphagia:

Oropharyngeal dysphagia

Also sometimes known as “high dysphagia”, oropharyngeal dysphagia is a difficulty swallowing located in your mouth or throat.  

It is sometimes broken down into oral dysphagia (of the mouth) and pharyngeal dysphagia (of the throat). 

Oesophageal dysphagia

Also sometimes known as “low dysphagia”, oesophageal dysphagia is a difficulty swallowing as a result of a problem with your oesophagus, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Dysphagia treatment 

Dysphagia is widely understood, and there are lots of ways to live with it and manage it. How your dysphagia is treated will depend on the underlying cause. 

Some possible treatments include:

  • Changes to your diet. 
  • Specially designed cutlery, plates and cups.
  • Speech and language therapy.
  • Feeding tubes.
  • Medicine.
  • Surgery.

Eating a modified diet

If you need to make changes to your diet because of dysphagia, you might be given advice by your healthcare team or referred to a dietitian. 

They will help you work out what’s safe for you to eat. 

Some people with dysphagia find it easiest to eat thickened drinks rather than solid food. 

Others need to eat food that is mashed or pureed.

Some people with dysphagia will eat food that is fortified with extra calories. This means they can get more nutrition without having to eat bigger portions, which they may find difficult. 

Foods to avoid with dysphagia

These are some foods that people with dysphagia commonly avoid:

  • Mixed consistency foods. Anything with multiple different textures, or a texture that changes (for example, ice cream that melts) might be challenging for someone with dysphagia. 
  • Small, bitty foods. Think of anything like rice, peas or corn, which could be a choking hazard.
  • Meat, potatoes and bread. In general, it’s best to avoid things that are stodgy and take a long time to chew.
  • Stringy, fibrous fruits and vegetables. Think of anything that has pulp or string-like fibres, such as pineapple, orange and asparagus. 
  • Acidic food and drinks. This might include fruit juices, fizzy drinks and citrus fruits.

If you or the person you care for has dysphagia, you should talk to your doctor or local speech and language therapist about the best diet for you. Everyone is different. 

Get support

If you think your child might have dysphagia, speak to your GP, a health visitor (for children under five), or any other healthcare professional your child sees. 

Getting diagnosed can help your child get any extra support they might need. 

You can also find out about the support system in England for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and the different systems in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland

To find out about benefits, grants and other financial support you might be entitled to, including help with energy, food, travel and leisure costs, please visit our Benefits and money section.  

To find out more about Sense services, speak to our information and advice team

Support from Sense

We’re here for people with complex disabilities and their families all over the UK. Get in touch to find out more about the services we offer.

This content was last reviewed in June 2023. We’ll review it again in 2025.