Can you guess how common dysphagia is?
You may never have heard of it. And if you have, you may think that it's a rare problem experienced by only a handful of very ill patients.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. A study showed that up to a third of normal elderly have difficulty swallowing (i.e. dysphagia). What this means is that dysphagia affects up to 1 in 3 healthy, elderly folks. This number goes up to around 50% in healthcare institutions like nursing homes and is especially common in patients with Parkinson's disease, stroke, ALS etc.
So how can we detect the signs of dysphagia? Here are some things to observe during mealtimes:
Most of us have experienced "choking" at some point in our lives. This could happen when we try to gulp down a cup of water too quickly, or when we talk and eat and the same time.
For most of us, this is harmless because we are able to produce a good strong cough when we choke. Our coughs protect our lungs by preventing food and water from entering them.
However, for some people, coughing might be a common occurrence during mealtimes. This happens despite constant reminders to "eat slowly". If these coughs are not strong enough, there is a risk of food and water entering the lungs, which can result in lung infection (i.e. pneumonia).
2. Throat clearing
If you're unsure what throat clearing means, think of it as what you do when there's a bit of phlegm stuck in your throat. It's similar to a cough but less dramatic.
Frequent throat clearing during meals can also be a sign of difficulty swallowing and should not be taken lightly.
3. A wet-sounding voice after eating/drinking.
Sometimes, when you're down with a bad cough with a lot of phlegm stuck in your throat, you may notice that your voice sounds a little gurgly and wet compared to your normal voice. If a person's voice often sounds like that when he/she is eating, chances are, this person may be facing some difficulty swallowing. This can be very subtle though, so you'll need to listen carefully.
I hope that this article has been useful. If you know of someone who presents with these signs, do encourage him/her to see a Speech Therapist for a formal evaluation.
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Stay tuned for our next article on how to help someone with dysphagia.