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A to Z: Dysphagia

May also be called: Swallowing Disorder; Deglutition Disorder; Trouble Swallowing

Dysphagia (dis-FAY-gee-uh) is difficulty, pain, or discomfort when swallowing.

More to Know

Muscle movements in the tongue and mouth allow a person to swallow and move food into the throat, or pharynx. From the throat, food travels down a muscular tube in the chest called the esophagus to reach the stomach. If there is a problem with any of the muscles or body parts involved in the swallowing process, it can make swallowing difficult or even impossible. This is known as dysphagia.

Older children and adults can describe the sensations of dysphagia to a doctor, but young babies may only show signs of feeding problems, breathing problems, or drooling between meals. Many conditions can cause dysphagia in a child, including infections, injuries, problems in the nerves or muscles, or problems in the structure or the cells of the digestive tract itself.

Dysphagia is usually the result of another condition, but it can lead to serious complications of its own. People with dysphagia may not be able to eat enough to stay healthy or maintain a healthy weight. Pieces of food that are too large can get stuck and block the airway, making breathing difficult, and liquids that enter the airway can settle in the lungs and lead to a condition called aspiration pneumonia.

Treatment for dysphagia involves treating the underlying cause and any problems that arise. Children may need speech therapy or physical therapy/occupational therapy to strengthen weak facial muscles and improve coordination.

It's also important to learn about foods and ways of eating that make swallowing easier. In some cases, a feeding tube may be used to make sure that someone with dysphagia gets proper nutrition.

Keep in Mind

Dysphagia is almost always a symptom of another condition. Treating that condition will usually help ease the swallowing problems. If dysphagia can’t be cured by treating the underlying cause, changes in eating techniques, a modified diet, or the use of a feeding tube can greatly reduce the risk of complications.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.

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