Like breathing, swallowing is a reflex and essential to everyday life. Humans swallow at least 900 times a day: around three times an hour during sleep, once per minute while awake and even more often during meals. We swallow food, liquids, medicine and saliva. People who have trouble swallowing are at risk of poor nutrition and dehydration, while babies and children may not take in enough nutrients to support growth and brain development.

Swallowing difficulty (dysphagia) is any problem with: sucking, swallowing,drinking, chewing, eating, controlling saliva, taking medication, or protecting the lungs from food and drink ‘going the wrong way’. It can be a problem with keeping the lips closed so that food, liquid or saliva doesn’t dribble out.

Sometimes, the first sign of a swallowing problem is coughing, gagging or choking when eating and drinking. Swallowing problems can mean food, drinks or saliva gets into the lungs and this can cause lung infections (pneumonia). Reflux is a problem where the valves in the oesophagus causes the contents of the stomach (like food, drink or stomach acid) to come back up, sometimes reaching as far up as the throat and mouth.

Who can have a swallowing problem?

A swallowing problem can occur at any stage in life. Babies born prematurely, those with heart defects or damage to the brain (e.g. cerebral palsy) often have swallowing problems. Children with abnormalities in the structures of the head, neck and face such as cleft lip or palate may also have difficulty feeding. Adults may also develop swallowing problems as a result of damage to the brain or structures of the head and neck. Almost half of everyone who has had a stroke will have a swallowing problem. People who have had a head injury, those with Parkinson’s disease, motor neuron disease, dementia, cancer of the head and neck may also have swallowing problems.

Information taken from Speech Pathology Australia to read more go to Fact Sheets