UK HealthCare

Difficulty Swallowing Can be Serious

photo of Debra Suiter
Debra Suiter, director of the Voice and Swallow Clinic

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 28, 2017) — Below is the Your Health column from Sunday's Herald-Leader, written by Debra Suiter, director of the UK Voice and Swallow Clinic.

Most of us have experienced difficulty swallowing at some point. We might have coughed or choked on a piece of food or felt something “going down the wrong tube.” We might have experienced painful swallowing when we’ve had a cold or a sore throat and avoided certain foods or liquids that were more painful to swallow. Pills might have felt as if they got stuck when we tried to swallow them. In most instances, these encounters with swallowing difficulty are temporary and do not have lasting negative effects on our health or wellbeing. However, for some individuals, difficulty swallowing is an ongoing issue that can have a significant impact on health and quality of life. 

Swallowing disorders, known as dysphagia, can occur at any age. June is National Dysphagia Awareness Month. Dysphagia can result from a variety of causes, including neurologic diseases such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease; structural abnormalities, such as head and neck tumors or trauma to the head and neck; or pulmonary disease. Approximately one in 25 adults and nine in 1,000 children between the ages of 3 to 17 years of age experience dysphagia each year. It is most common in older adults, although dysphagia is not a normal consequence of aging. 

Dysphagia can have devastating consequences. If an individual coughs frequently when attempting to eat or drink, he may fail to eat or drink enough to meet his needs. In addition, dysphagia can result in pulmonary complications, including aspiration pneumonia. Approximately one-third of individuals with dysphagia develop aspiration pneumonia, and 60,000 individuals die each year from complications related to aspiration pneumonia, according to the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR). 

Dysphagia can also impact quality of life. Eating and drinking are parts of our everyday lives. We celebrate birthdays or special occasions by eating cake; we go out to eat at our favorite restaurant with our friends or families. Someone who is experiencing dysphagia often cannot participate in these activities, and this can lead to social isolation, anxiety, and/or depression.  Even if the individual is able to take some food or liquid by mouth, if he coughs frequently or needs to regurgitate food or liquid immediately after attempting to swallow them, he may become embarrassed to the point of avoiding situations in which eating and drinking are involved. Many patients with dysphagia report avoiding certain activities, such as eating out in a restaurant, because they do not wish to embarrass themselves.

If you are experiencing any difficulty swallowing, please notify your doctor. He or she can then make a referral to a speech-language pathologist who can assess your swallowing and make recommendations for treatment if needed. Speech-language pathologists receive special training in assessing and treating swallowing disorders. It is especially important to seek the services of a speech-language pathologist who has specialty certification (BCS-S) in swallowing and swallowing disorders. To find a specialist, search   

UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: #uk4ky #seeblue