Swallowing and your health

Like breathing, swallowing isn’t something we spend time thinking about. But just like breathing, if you’ve ever had difficulties with swallowing, you know how tough it can be when things aren’t working as they should.

Knowing how swallowing works and the signs of swallowing problems can help you get the support you need if this affects your health and independence.

Down the wrong pipe

Humans swallow up to 900 times a day – around three times an hour while sleeping, and once a minute or more while we’re awake. Breathing and swallowing share the same tube (the esophagus), which branches into two tubes in the throat. Food and drink goes one way, and air the other. With each swallow, we hold our breath for a second to make sure what we’re swallowing goes down the correct tube to the stomach. We all know what it feels like when food goes down the wrong way!

Trouble swallowing

Difficulty swallowing is called dysphagia, and includes any problem with sucking, swallowing, drinking, chewing, eating, controlling saliva, taking medication or protecting the lungs from food or drink going down the wrong way. Swallowing problems can mean food, drink or saliva get into the lungs, causing lung infections (pneumonia).

Babies who are born prematurely may have swallowing problems. Trouble swallowing can also affect adults who have experienced a stroke, head injury, Parkinson’s disease, Motor Neuron Disease, dementia, or cancer of the head and neck.


Signs of swallowing problems

Signs of swallowing problems include:

  • Coughing, gagging or choking when eating food
  • A feeling that food or drink gets caught in the throat or has gone down the wrong way
  • Taking a long time to eat (more than 30 minutes to finish a meal)
  • Avoiding foods you find difficult to swallow
  • Unplanned weight loss
  • Frequent chest infections with no known cause.

Living with swallowing problems

Difficulty swallowing can lead to serious health effects including pneumonia, choking, poor nutrition, dehydration and impacted growth and development in children. The social aspect can also be challenging; if you have trouble swallowing, eating and drinking can be uncomfortable, stressful and embarrassing. It may seem easier to avoid eating in front of people, which can lead to anxiety, depression and social isolation.

Health professionals such as speech pathologists, doctors, nurses, dietitians, lactation consultants, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and others work together to help people with swallowing problems. A speech pathologist may recommend changes to the texture of food and drinks and provide rehabilitation techniques and exercises to help people swallow safely.

For more information, contact Speech Pathology Australia. Or contact us at The Benevolent Society on 1800 236 762 for more information on our Speech Pathology programs.