Swallowing disorders, collectively referred to as dysphagia, make eating and drinking difficult at best and hazardous in severe cases. Foods, such as soups and ice cream, and beverages have the potential to choke people. There is also a high risk of aspiration which is food or drinks going into the lungs instead of the stomach. This can lead to infections, pneumonia and respiratory distress.
Dysphagia can occur at any age, but it’s more common in the elderly due to high-risk factors. Wear and tear of the esophagus, treatment for some cancers, stroke and the development of Parkinson’s disease are more likely to affect adults rather than children. Sudden damage to the brain or spinal cord through injuries, accidents, or near drowning cases are some causes that affect people of all ages. Younger people also if diagnosed with muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis.
When not dealing with a sudden health event, symptoms of swallowing disorders are varied. The National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders identifies some common symptoms as:
- Coughing during or after eating or drinking
- Gurgly or wet sounding voice after meals or snacks
- The extra effort required to chew or swallow
- Dehydration and weight loss due to decreased intake
- Reoccurring pneumonia or chest congestion after eating
It is time to see a doctor if any of those symptoms persist. Diagnosis of dysphagia can be devasting, but there some simple actions that can be taken to make living with it easier.
The first thing to keep in mind is that you are not alone. There are support groups, educational podcasts to learn about disorders, home healthcare if needed, and professionals available to help with adjustments. Mild cases can be managed individually and discreetly. There is no need to stop eating and drinking foods and beverages that have been enjoyed for decades. Many people lead virtually undisrupted lives once diagnosed.
A speech therapist can teach those diagnosed swallowing exercises to make eating and drinking safer and easier. The esophagus is a muscle that can be strengthened in many cases. Exercises completed a few times each day will help, especially if the cause is simple to wear and tear of that muscle.
Techniques, such as placing food or liquids in the back of the tongue, can reduce stress and pressure allowing items to go down into the stomach with more comfort. Depending on the circumstances, therapists can travel to the home for convenience. A parent, caregiver, or spouse can learn exercises and techniques as well provide reminders, prompts, or demonstrations to the person diagnosed.
Another way to make the adjustment easy is to use thickening products to change the consistency of troublesome foods and beverages. There are several brands on the market that provide individual packets for discretion in restaurants or dinner parties, and larger packets for thickening pitchers of liquids at home. It is wise to compare the ingredients of different brands.
Most utilize corn starch as the thickening agent, which compromises taste and can be clumpy. SimplyThick Nectar is unique because the agent used is xanthan gum which doesn’t alter the taste and doesn’t continue to thicken past the desired consistency.
There are some adjustments required to live with a dysphagia diagnosis for proper nutrition and hydration. Most people can enjoy the taste of all their favourite foods and drinks by learning exercises and adding a thickener that will not compromise that taste. Thicknesses typically range from nectar to honey to pudding. Consult the therapist to determine which one will work best for you.