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Feeding and Swallowing

Feeding and Swallowing Problems

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Feeding and swallowing problems are called dysphagia (dis-FAY-juh).

What causes dysphagia?

A person may have feeding and swallowing problems if they have:

  • a disease or injury that affects their brain or nervous system (e.g., stroke, spinal cord injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease)
  • problems with development (e.g., cerebral palsy, autism)
  • changes in the shape of the face, jaw, mouth, tongue, or neck, or changes in the way they work (e.g., due to cancer, surgery, aging)

What are the symptoms of dysphagia?

Dysphagia can cause problems with feeding, eating, drinking, or taking medicine, such as:

  • choking​, coughing, or gagging
  • having pain or needing to work hard when swallowing
  • having trouble chewing
  • feeling like food is stuck in the throat or left in the mouth after swallowing
  • spilling food or liquid from the mouth or nose and/or drooling
  • throwing up
  • having a gurgling voice after swallowing
  • recurring chest infections or a congested chest with lots of phlegm
  • losing weight when not trying to, or not being able to gain weight
  • not eating enough food or drinking enough liquids
  • not being able to eat food with new textures (e.g., from pureed to more solid food)
  • having trouble accepting or tolerating food
  • not enjoying eating

What problems could dysphagia cause?

Dysphagia can cause other problems, including:

  • food or liquid going into the lungs (this is called aspiration)
  • the airway becoming blocked (by an obstruction or choking)
  • malnutrition
  • dehydration
  • chest infections, which could cause ongoing lung problems and/or pneumonia
  • slowed growth
  • slowed development
  • stress for the person, family, and/or caregiver
  • social difficulties or isolation

How are feeding and swallowing problems assessed and treated?

Feeding and swallowing problems can be assessed by a health care team that may include a:

  • registered speech-language pathologist
  • registered occupational therapist
  • registered dietitian

Team members work closely with doctors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers. Referrals are made to specialists as needed.

The health-care team will assess the problems with feeding and swallowing, and also usually provide:

  • counselling
  • education
  • treatment
  • ways to problem solve

Assessment teams will follow up to make sure the person is safe and getting enough nutrition and fluids. They’ll also help the person learn to feed themself and be more independent.​​

Where to go get help

For more information about how speech-language pathologists and audiologists can help, contact:

  • Your doctor, public health nurse, or other health provider
  • Your local health centre​

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