What Causes Difficulty Swallowing?

teen eating with stomach pain
Peter Zelei/E+/Getty Images

Question: What Causes Difficulty Swallowing?

Answer: Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) can occur when food does not pass normally from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach. There may be a sensation of food sticking in the throat, chest pressure or "burning" after eating, or a feeling of choking.

Several conditions can cause difficulty swallowing, and this symptom should always be evaluated by a physician.

In many cases, though, difficulty swallowing is linked to a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes the contents of the stomach to inappropriately leak into the esophagus.

When GERD is not treated, or is under-treated, it could result in serious complications. Some of these complications can cause difficulty swallowing. Studies have shown that approximately 43% of patients with severe erosive esophagitis will experience difficulty swallowing, and up to 35% of patients with mild erosive esophagitis will experience difficulty swallowing. Other studies have shown that approximately one-third of patients with esophageal strictures will experience difficulty swallowing. One of the symptoms of esophageal cancer 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. It is important to remember that sometimes the pain of a heart attack can be confused with the burning pain of GERD, and it is always important to seek medical attention if there is any doubt as to the origin of this chest pain.
  • Hoarseness, especially in the morning
    Irritation caused by refluxed stomach acid into the throat can lead to hoarseness.
  • Persistent cough
    In some studies, GERD accounted for about 41% of cases of chronic cough in nonsmoking patients. If refluxed stomach acid is breathed in, it can cause coughing.
  • Bad breath
    When acid from the stomach comes up into the throat and mouth, acrid-smelling, bad breath can result.


    "Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." NIH Publication No. 07–0882 May 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)

    Thad Wilkins, MD, Ralph A. Gillies, Ph.D., Andria M. Thomas, Ph.D. and Peggy J. Wagner, Ph.D. "The Prevalence of Dysphagia in Primary Care Patients: A HamesNet Research Network Study." The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine

    "The Word on GERD - Understanding GERD." The American College of Gastroenterology

    Continue Reading