What Causes Difficulty Swallowing?

Dysphagia can result from GERD and other conditions

teen eating with stomach pain
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Do you often have difficulty swallowing? While anyone can have the occasional incident where "food goes down the wrong way," if you have recurring problems swallowing, it is an important symptom that needs to be evaluated by your doctor. It can lead to problems such as poor nutrition, dehydration, getting more colds, and even aspiration pneumonia.

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) can occur when food does not pass normally from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach.

You may have a sensation of food sticking in the throat, chest pressure, "burning" after eating, or a feeling of choking.This can be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) but also of other conditions, as well as complications of GERD.

Causes of Difficulty Swallowing

Several conditions can cause frequent difficulty swallowing, and this symptom should always be evaluated by a physician. Difficulty swallowing is more common as you get older, due to the aging process, but also because some conditions are more frequent as you age. The causes can be divided into two categories.

In esophageal causes of dysphagia, food gets hung up while passing down your throat to your stomach. This category includes spasms, tumors, inflammation, food allergies, scar tissue, and the top culprit, GERD. With GERD, the contents of the stomach to inappropriately leak into the esophagus.

In oropharyngeal causes of dysphagia, you have trouble moving food from your mouth into your throat.

These causes can be neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy. This can also occur after a stroke or brain injury. Some types of cancer and cancer treatment such as radiation can also be causes. There are also cases of pharyngeal diverticula, pockets where food can become trapped.

GERD and Difficulty Swallowing

GERD is a frequent cause of dysphagia. Aso, people with other conditions that can cause dysphagia are more likely to have difficulty swallowing if they also have GERD.

When GERD is not treated or is under-treated, it could result in serious complications such as difficulty swallowing, including erosive esophagitis and esophageal strictures. One of the symptoms of esophageal cancer, which is more common in people with GERD, is difficulty swallowing. Again, if you have any difficulty swallowing, it is important that you see your physician.

Other symptoms of GERD can include:

  • Chest pain: This pain usually starts behind the breastbone (the sternum), and may travel up to the throat. It usually occurs shortly after eating and can last from a few minutes to several hours.
  • Hoarseness, especially in the morning: Irritation caused by refluxed stomach acid into the throat can lead to hoarseness.
  • Persistent cough: If refluxed stomach acid is breathed in, it can cause coughing. This is a common cause of a persistent cough in people who don't smoke.
  • Bad breath: When acid from the stomach comes up into the throat and mouth, acrid-smelling, bad breath can result.

A Word From Verywell

If you have frequent difficulty swallowing, this is an important symptom to discuss with your doctor.

It may be a sign of a new condition or a condition that is getting worse. Besides being unpleasant, you may not be eating or drinking enough to maintain good health. Your doctor will be able to explore what the cause may be and decide on how best to relieve your symptoms.

Sources:

Dysphagia. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dysphagia/basics/definition/CON-20033444?p=1.

Acid Reflux (GER & GERD) in Adults. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults.

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