What Is Dysphagia: An Overview of This Potentially Dangerous Swallowing Disorder

assessing impaired swallowing

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  • The onset of this condition usually indicates that there’s a problem either in your esophagus or your throat, both of which are responsible for pushing food down into your stomach
  • Since swallowing is connected to a number of muscles and nerves, many esophagus- and throat-related disease can cause dysphagia

In essence, dysphagia is an umbrella term used to describe difficulties in swallowing that are caused by various disorders. The onset of this condition usually indicates that there’s a problem either in your esophagus or your throat, both of which are responsible for pushing food down into your stomach. If left untreated, dysphagia may even lead to complications that further endanger your health.1

The 2 Main Types of Dysphagia That Can Appear

Dysphagia is classified into two types depending on which area of your digestive tract is affected:2

Oropharyngeal Dysphagia

Also known as high dysphagia, this condition commonly affects the mouth and/or the throat. It is characterized by difficulties in moving food from the oral cavity down to the esophagus. Attempting to do so can result in coughing, choking or gagging whenever you eat or drink.

Esophageal Dysphagia

This subtype is relegated to the esophagus only and is generally identified by a sensation that feels like food is stuck in your throat or the middle of your chest. In short, you may be able to swallow successfully, but whatever you chew or drink has trouble reaching the stomach.

Underlying Diseases Associated With Dysphagia

Since swallowing is connected to a number of muscles and nerves, many esophagus- and throat-related disease can cause dysphagia. Some related diseases include:3

  • Stroke: Stroke causes some degree of paralysis in 9 out of 10 survivors, and the affected muscles can include your throat or esophagus.4
  • Multiple sclerosis: This is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the protective coverings of your nerve cells, leading to diminished biological functions important for everyday life. Aside from dysphagia, vision problems, fatigue and balance problems are common symptoms of MS.5
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease: Also known as GERD, this condition causes acid reflux, an action wherein stomach acids flow back up the esophagus, causing a symptom known as heartburn. If your lifestyle and diet choices are not treated, GERD may lead to esophageal ulcers and laryngeal inflammation. 6

Many other conditions are known to cause dysphagia as a side effect. Visit the Causes page for more information about each of them.

Dysphagia Can Cause Severe Problems If Not Treated Right Away

Left untreated, dysphagia can lead to various complications that may endanger your health. Prominent examples everyone should know about include:7

Aspiration Pneumonia

Aspiration pneumonia is a respiratory infection that develops when your throat accidentally moves food into the airways instead of the esophagus. This can irritate your lungs and even cause them damage. Elderly citizens are generally at risk of this ailment.

Symptoms to watch out for include coughing, which can be dry, yellow, green or even bloodstained. Chest pain, difficulty breathing and a high fever with a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) are other key indicators.

Dehydration

Dehydration is a side effect your body experiences when it has depleted fluid levels. In the context of dysphagia, this may happen due to difficulties getting water and other fluids into your system. Again, the elderly are more prone to this condition, and severe dehydration may require immediate treatment in a hospital setting.8

Symptoms to watch out for include increased thirst, dry mouth, headache, decreased urine output and nausea. In severe cases, dehydration may lead to lethargy, seizure and shock.9

Malnutrition

When your body is not getting enough nutrients due to swallowing problems, malnutrition may occur. Furthermore, your chances of becoming malnourished becomes higher if you had a stroke, which is a potential cause of dysphagia.10

If you’re experiencing swallowing problems and notice that you’ve been losing weight, feeling weaker, losing concentration and experiencing low moods, you are most likely malnourished.

MORE ABOUT DYSPHAGIA

Dysphagia: Introduction

What Is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia Symptoms

Dysphagia Causes

Dysphagia Treatment

Dysphagia Prevention

Dysphagia Diet

Dysphagia FAQ


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