Swallowing Difficulties (Dysphagia)

What is Dysphagia?

People with dysphagia have difficulty swallowing. Some people may have trouble safely swallowing liquids, foods, or saliva and some may be completely unable to swallow at all.

Dysphagia can be serious. Someone who cannot swallow safely may not be able to eat or drink enough to stay healthy or maintain an ideal weight. Food or liquid can also enter the airway and may enter the lungs; this can cause harmful bacteria to grow, resulting in chest infections and even pneumonia.

Some people with Dysphagia may find it helpful to thicken their drinks. Find out how to thicken fluids.

Why has your swallowing ability changed after having COVID-19 

You may experience difficulty swallowing after coronavirus for a number of reasons such as:

  • Increased coughing or shortness of breath which can affect the timing of your swallow, letting food and liquids go down the wrong way (aspiration) into your airway which can lead to even more coughing
  • Long-term intubation (more than 3 days) can cause weakness in the tongue/throat and damage the vocal cords, all resulting in a weak swallow.
  • General physical and muscular weakness

These changes are likely to improve as you recover from coronavirus but in some cases you may need extra help.

Red flags to watch out for

  • Coughing and a feeling of choking when you are swallowing food or drink
  • Feeling short of breath during or after mealtimes or drinks
  • Food or drink ‘going down the wrong way’
  • Feeling more ‘chesty’ or unwell
  • Feeling there is a lump stuck in your throat
  • Eating slower than usual or trouble starting a swallow
  • A wet or gurgly voice after eating or drinking
  • Food left in the mouth after a meal

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and/or feel that your ability to swallow is getting worse then please contact your GP.

General points to remember   

  • Try to avoid eating and drinking when you are tired
  • Sit comfortably but upright, try not to tilt your head backwards
  • Make sure your mouth is clean and moist before starting to eat
  • Mealtimes may take longer – allow yourself enough time and don’t rush
  • Small amounts of food may be best, i.e. eat little and often– as swallowing may become slower and more of an effort by the end of a meal
  • It may be necessary to swallow at least twice for every mouthful to make sure everything has gone down
  • Try to remain sitting upright for at least half an hour after eating/drinking to allow food/drink to settle in your stomach
  • Clean your teeth/dentures and tongue at least twice a day to keep your mouth healthy and reducing any bacteria building up

How others can help  

  • Ensure the person with swallowing difficulties is alert and sat upright and comfortable
  • Reduce distractions when eating and drinking
  • Make sure their mouth is clean and moist before eating and drinking
  • Support the person to eat and drink at an appropriate rate, not over filling their mouth
  • If the person is not able to feed them self, feed at a slow pace with your full attention on the person
  • Use appropriate cutlery or adaptations if these have been recommended by a professional
  • Follow recommendations from professionals – for example, giving foods and drinks which are the consistency or texture advised
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