This section has been reviewed and approved by the PLWC Editorial
Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) occurs when a
person has trouble getting food or liquid to pass down the throat. Some
people may gag, cough, or choke when trying to swallow, while others
experience pain or feel like food is stuck in the throat.
Difficulty swallowing can be a result of cancer itself, especially throat
or esophageal cancers that can cause the esophagus to become restricted
or narrowed. Difficulty swallowing is also a relatively common side
effect of some cancer treatments. Potential side effects of surgery,
radiation treatment, or chemotherapy that can cause swallowing
- Soreness, pain, or
inflammation in the throat, esophagus, or mouth (mucositis)
- Dry mouth, from radiation
treatment or chemotherapy
- Infections of the mouth
or esophagus, from radiation treatment or chemotherapy
- Swelling or constriction
of the throat or esophagus, from radiation treatment or surgery
- Physical changes to the
mouth, jaws, throat, or esophagus, as a result of surgery
Choking or gagging while swallowing can be frightening. Your doctor may
refer you to a speech therapist, a professional who specializes in
helping patients use the muscles in the mouth and throat. A speech
therapist will teach you how to swallow more easily and how to avoid
choking and gagging while eating or drinking.
Your doctor may also prescribe medications to reduce inflammation and
pain. Some pain medications can be given in liquid form to be used as a
mouth rinse directly before eating. People with a mouth or throat
infection, such as a fungal infection like thrush, may be given
medication to treat the infection.
If swallowing problems make it difficult to eat a nutritious diet, it may
be necessary to receive food through a tube (usually a nasogastric tube that passes through the nose into
the stomach) until swallowing becomes easier.
Diet and eating tips for patients with difficulty swallowing
Depending on the severity and cause of swallowing difficulties, different
tips may work better for some patients than for others. Try different
types of food and ways of eating until you find what works best.
- Eat soft, smooth foods,
such as yogurt, pudding, and ice cream.
- Mash or blend foods to
make homemade shakes or moisten dry foods with broth, sauces,
butter, or milk.
- Try thickening liquids
by adding gelatin, tapioca, baby rice cereal, or commercial
thickening products (thicker liquids can be easier to swallow).
- Use a straw to drink
liquids and soft foods.
- Eat foods that are cold
(to help numb pain) or at room temperature.
- Take small bites and
chew slowly and thoroughly.
- Sit upright when eating
- If you are losing
weight, eat small, frequent meals and choose foods that are high in
protein and calories, such as eggs, milkshakes, casseroles, and
- Avoid dry, coarse, or
hard foods and foods that need a lot of chewing.
- Meet with a registered
dietitian (RD) for additional advice on eating a balanced diet.