Dysphagia - A Difficult Diagnosis to Swallow!

Swallowing Awareness Day?

You may be thinking, there’s such a thing as a Swallowing Awareness Day a whole day devoted to something no one even thinks about? Why? Isn’t swallowing something we all ‘just do’, like breathing? No thought involved. We don’t have an International Breathing Day. For most of us, that’s quite right. We don’t even have to think about swallowing; it’s all automatic, just like breathing or our heart beating.

Many of us however have had at least one experience in our lives, of something we ate or drank going down the wrong way’. We coughed and coughed and sometimes, had to cough a great deal more ... and whatever it was that went down the wrong way, was cleared. Depending on how long you had to cough, the incident may or may not have distressed you. But imagine, having the risk of that kind of discomfort every single time you eat or drink. That is life challenging and that is what’s known as Dysphagia – a swallowing problem. 

A 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. 

According to Speech Pathology Australia, the speech pathology profession’s peak body, around one million Australians have a swallowing difficulty. Swallowing problems can occur at any stage of life. However, the knowledge of dysphagia and its implications remain largely unknown for most Australians.

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 get into the lungs and this can cause lung infections (pneumonia). Reflux is a problem where the valves in the oesophagus (the tube where the food or fluid travels to the stomach) cause 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.

Swallowing is essential to everyday life. Humans swallow between 500-700 times a day, around three times an hour during sleep, once per minute while awake and even more during meals.

Swallowing Awareness Day 2022 is an opportunity to bring attention to swallowing disorders and to connect people with speech pathologists, the professionals who can help. For those of you working in the home care, aged care or disability sectors, seeing someone coughing during or after a meal is an all-too-common occurrence. 

Coughing is the body’s protection mechanism, just like quickly withdrawing your hand if you touch something hot. Your body is designed to protect you and has automatic ‘strategies’ to keep us safe and well. 

Not only is eating and drinking essential for our survival, but as a culture, the world associates virtually every special occasion, every important family event, every calendar worthy celebration, with eating and drinking. Every culture marks on their calendar, these events and the traditions of preparing unique foods for them. That whole process forms part of the celebration. 

The Chinese serve longevity noodles, a whole steamed fish for abundance, sticky rice balls for togetherness, for Chinese New Year. At Christmas, there’s turkey, glazed ham and plum pudding. At Diwali, there’s crispy and spicy samosa, paneer tikka and onion bhaji. At Hanukkah, there’s brisket, latkes, also known as potato pancakes. The wonderful list goes on and on. 

Imagine missing out on any of these fabulous foods at a time in the year, or several times in the year, when everyone else is relishing in those special celebrations and looking forward to the foods involved. My mouth waters just thinking about them all.

Unfortunately for many, these occasions are filled with a deep sense of dread, stress and even embarrassment at either having to refuse these beautiful foods or struggling to find something they feel they can eat safely without coughing and spluttering all over or all through the meal. Living with this underlying distress is a kind of bereavement at the loss of who they were and their previous capabilities.

For the one million with swallowing problems, their body’s automatic, protective strategies to protect them while eating and drinking have failed them. Anger at this loss is often part of the process of acceptance or resignation to their altered way of life. Having their food and liquids modified to a safe and pleasant consistency is now far easier than ever before. Care Foods Co is a provider of not only nutritious but delicious, safe, modified foods delivered directly to your home.

Having a clear understanding and knowledge of identifying and supporting either yourself or a loved one in this situation is what Swallowing Awareness Day is all about. Thank you for taking the time to explore this area of massive importance.

Thank you to Barbara Braithwaite, Principal Speech Pathologist Safe Swallowing Education for providing this blog for Care Food Co.


Speech pathologySwallowing awareness day