It’s not uncommon to be eating a meal and suddenly find yourself thinking, “I feel like something went down the wrong way” or “I think it went down the wrong tube.” When this happens, we often wait for the feeling to pass and then continue eating. It might not happen again for several months or even years later. But what if this becomes more frequent? What if your issue with swallowing is not just a one-time ordeal?
What’s Really Happening
What’s really happening when you cough or clear your throat during or after a meal is called aspiration or penetration. This happens when liquid or food particles slip into the area leading to your lungs instead of your stomach (penetration). When food or drink gets past your vocal folds (aspiration), it can make its way down to your lungs.
Often, with aspiration or penetration, your response is to cough or clear your throat. That’s a good thing — it’s a sign your body is attempting to get rid of whatever is trying to enter the wrong way.
Besides coughing and/or clearing your throat, there are other signs to tell whether you may have a swallowing problem, including:
A wet or gurgly voice during or after eating/drinking
Difficulty sealing lips while eating/drinking, which causes food/liquid to leak from the mouth
Excess food remaining in the mouth after a meal
The sensation something is stuck in the throat while eating and needs to be cleared
What Is Dysphagia
The medical term for a swallowing difficulty is dysphagia, a disorder that affects 1 of 25 American adults annually. Most of the time, it is associated with other health problems and indicates that something else is happening in your body, such as a problem associated with the head, neck or brain.
What to Do
If you have noticed that you or a loved one are experiencing any of these signs and symptoms, a visit to your doctor is highly recommended. The issue is worth further investigation because it can lead to pneumonia or even malnourishment. In addition, it may be one of the first signs of another condition. If your swallowing difficulties are accompanied by a sudden change in speech, vision, balance or mental status, or reduced strength on one side of your body, this can be a sign of a stroke. Should this occur, seek medical attention immediately by calling 911.
Fortunately, there are treatments available to address dysphagia. Tests that may be completed, depending on the type of issues you are having, include a modified barium swallow study or a fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES). These will help your therapist see where your problem is. A speech-language pathologist is the most likely specialist to conduct any necessary assessment and treatment.
Although modifications to food or liquid intake are sometimes required to reduce your occurrence of dysphagia, it is possible to get back to a regular diet when combined with proper treatment.
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