Managing nutrition is essential, but you may run into some difficulties during mealtimes as a result of aging. If you have had consistent swallowing difficulties lately, there is a possibility that you might have dysphagia. This condition makes it more difficult for your body to move food or liquid from the mouth to the stomach; in some cases, it might be impossible to swallow at all. While having the occasional difficulty swallowing is not usually a cause for concern, persistent dysphagia is a serious medical condition that requires treatment.
The signs and symptoms of dysphagia include:
- Pain during swallowing
- Inability to swallow
- The feeling of food being stuck in your throat, chest or sternum
- Frequent heartburn
- Weight loss
- Gagging or coughing while swallowing
- Food or stomach acid rising up into the throat
When Should You Go to a doctor?
If you have regular difficulty swallowing, weight loss, regurgitation or vomiting, it is best that you see your doctor. If your condition is interfering with your breathing, it is essential that you call for emergency help at once. If you find yourself having trouble swallowing because you feel that food has been lodged in your throat or chest, make your way to the closest emergency department.
Types of Dysphagia
Swallowing is a complex process that involves many nerves and muscles. Any condition that damages or causes these parts of your body to deteriorate can lead to dysphagia. Likewise, any condition that causes the back of your throat or esophagus to narrow can lead to dysphagia as well.
There are two main categories of dysphagia:
- Esophageal dysphagia, which refers to the feeling of food getting stuck or caught in the base of your throat or chest after you’ve started swallowing.
- Oropharyngeal dysphagia, which is caused by certain conditions that weaken your throat muscles, compromising your body’s ability to move food from your mouth into your throat and esophagus. With this type of dysphagia, choking, gagging and coughing can occur when you try to swallow. You might also feel food or fluid going down your windpipe or up into your nose, which could lead to pneumonia.
Risk factors for dysphagia include:
- Aging, which causes natural wear and tear on parts of the body such as the esophagus. Aging also brings the possibility of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or stroke, which gives one a higher chance of swallowing difficulties. It is important to note, however, that dysphagia is not a normal part of aging, and requires medical treatment.
- Certain health conditions such as nervous system or neurological disorders can lead to more difficulty swallowing.
Difficulty swallowing can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, weight loss and choking. If food or liquid enters the airway during attempts to swallow, this can result in aspiration pneumonia, which stems from food transferring bacteria to the lungs.
Swallowing difficulties cannot be prevented, but you can reduce the risk of swallowing difficulties by eating slowly and taking your time to chew your food well. If, however, your swallowing difficulties are persistent, you are encouraged to visit your doctor to discuss treatment.