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Head and Neck Cancer

Swallowing Problems

Swallowing requires movement of the lips, tongue, palate (roof of the mouth), throat, larynx (voice box) and esophagus (the long tube that connects the mouth and stomach). If one or more of these organs is not working due to surgery or radiation therapy, swallowing problems may occur. There are many different types of swallowing problems.

Signs of Swallowing Problems

If these problems make it difficult to chew and swallow, you may be eating less. But even with these difficulties, it is important that you continue to swallow throughout your treatment. Just as it is said about other muscles, "use it or lose it", this advice applies to the muscles of swallowing.

Hints to Manage Swallowing Problems

If you are losing weight because you are unable to eat normally, a dietitian, nurse, or your doctor may recommend liquid supplements or the use of a feeding tube.

Drink six to eight glasses of fluids a day unless you have been told not to eat or drink. This will help to prevent dehydration.

Swallowing Pills

If you have trouble swallowing pills, ask your nurse, doctor or pharmacist if you can crush the pills and take them with a teaspoon of ice cream, applesauce, or other soft food. Please note, it is important to consult with your health care provider because some medications cannot be crushed and taken safely. Check to see if the medication comes in liquid form.

Speech-Language Pathologist

You may see a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), a specialist in speech and swallowing problems. The SLP will discuss possible changes in speech and swallowing, evaluate you for the swallowing problems, and recommend an appropriate diet.

This information originally appeared in the Journey Guide Patient Handbook developed by the Seidman Cancer Center at University Hospitals, and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2013.

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Last Reviewed: Mar 06, 2013

Professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University

Case Western Reserve University