GUEST COLUMNIST: Trouble swallowing? Here’s when to take it seriously

Monday July 15 2019

Dr Chris Peterson

Dr Chris Peterson 

By Dr Chris Peterson

I recently came across a 70-year-old patient complaining of difficult swallowing when he eats. The old man as he narrates his symptoms, tells me that he starts coughing after the first bite of food and occasionally, has nasal regurgitation [the action of bringing swallowed food up again to the mouth].

According to his presentation, for the past two weeks he has been going through throat irritation and painful swallowing associated with mild fever on and off.

He brought with him his past medical records (which I always recommend patients to go with previous medical history when they visit a doctor), which tells that he went to a walk-in pharmacy about 5 days ago where he bought certain antibiotics with the aim to treat what we medically call, acute tonsillitis, a condition that involves an inflammation, infection of the tonsils, and was given oral medications.

And this mostly happens due to comprised immune system. This infection can sometimes be due to certain bacteria or even certain viruses.

Acute tonsillitis, most of the time goes away with time, but in some cases, medication for instance, first line antibiotics can help.

Now back to my patient’s story: His situation continued to drastically worsen despite the medication he was prescribed. There was no sign of improvement.


And worse enough, this time he even started to experience that sensation of food getting stuck in his throat, which later made him being unable to swallow anything that he drank or ate.

Physically he looked pale, with swollen and white patches tonsils. Judging from his medication history, since antibiotics didn’t help him, I went for essential investigations; endoscopic examination (a test whereby a thin, flexible lighted instrument is passed down your throat so that your doctor can see your oesophagus).

And that’s when I came to find out that he was suffering from dysphagia, a condition that hardens the passage of foods or liquids from the mouth to the stomach.

Pay attention to signs

In most cases, people have limited awareness of this kind of medical condition, that’s why they always confuse it with tonsillitis and sometimes these two conditions share similar symptoms.

It’s therefore recommended to keenly pay attention to the symptoms especially when the symptoms lasts for quite some days even after taking commonly used medication.

If you get trouble swallowing, it’s time to take it seriously especially when you go through some of these symptoms which at times, can be, having pain while swallowing, hoarseness, having frequent heartburn and coughing or nagging when swallowing food.

The causes of this medical condition, dysphagia or commonly known as ‘difficulty swallowing’, varies by age, environmental causes or even presence of certain systemic diseases.

Generally, people with chronic stomach ulcers, or with neurological or nervous disorders are more likely to experience difficulty swallowing.

Although swallowing difficulties can’t be prevented, you can reduce your risk of occasional difficulty swallowing by eating slowly and chewing your food well. Early detection and effective treatment of digestive disorders can lower the risk of developing dysphagia.

See your doctor if you regularly have difficulty in swallowing, regurgitation or vomiting after eating.