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Dysphagia: When swallowing is an issue

April 5, 2019

 

 

Did you know that approximately 6 million seniors in the US have difficulty swallowing? As people age, their throat and mouth muscles tend to weakening, often resulting in a condition called dysphagia. Dysphagia can be caused by dementia, diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, or multiple sclerosis, gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD), or from strokes or similar medical traumas.

 

If your loved one is choking often, even with liquids, talk to their doctor about testing for dysphagia. Dysphagia can lead to serious complications including:

  • Dehydration

  • Malnutrition

  • Infections

  • Aspiration pneumonia

Patients with dysphagia have nearly twice the chance of dying while hospitalized than patients who do not have swallowing difficulties. According to an article published by University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, in a five-year study, patients diagnosed with swallowing problems had an average hospital stay that was 3.8 days longer, hospital bills that averaged $6,243 higher, and following discharge, were 33 percent more likely to need nursing-home care.

 

“This is a huge quality-of-life issue for patients,” explains David Francis, MD, assistant professor of surgery and an otolaryngologist with UW Health. “Imagine not being able to eat food when you are hungry, or take a drink when you are thirsty. Much of our daily lives revolve around dining.”

 

The good news is that there are a variety of ways to treat dysphagia, provided it has an early diagnosis. From changing the consistency of the foods or liquids so they are not aspirated into the lungs as easily to protecting the airways by teaching new ways of swallowing.

 

Here are some issues faced by seniors suffering from dysphagia:

 

Medications

 

One of the issues that often arises involves safely taking medications when someone has dysphagia. Adding the pills to pudding or applesauce makes them more palpable if they can be crushed. Note: it is essential that you speak with the pharmacist before crushing any pills, as some are labeled “not to be crushed.” Additionally, there can be problems with the medications if they are mixed with certain substances, so always ask first!

 

If pills have to be swallowed whole, they’ll generally have to be