Causes of difficulty swallowing or dysphagia

If your child has difficulty swallowing food or liquids, it’s most likely because of a sore throat. Your child might have a sore throat from a cold, glandular fever, mouth infection or mouth ulcers.

Babies can have difficulty swallowing if they have a cold that’s causing a blocked nose. Because they need to breathe through their noses while breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, the blocked nose makes it hard for them to swallow.

Very occasionally a serious underlying condition might cause difficulty swallowing – for example, a weakness of the sphincter between the oesophagus and the stomach.

Some children with special medical conditions like cerebral palsy might have difficulty swallowing and might need to see a specialist for treatment.

The medical term for difficulty swallowing is dysphagia.

Difficulty swallowing: when to see your doctor

You should see the doctor immediately if:

  • you think your child has swallowed or breathed in a foreign object
  • your child can’t swallow anything at all, including her own saliva
  • you think your child has swallowed a household chemical
  • you think your child has had an insect bite
  • your child has a fever and is unwell for no obvious reason.
If your child is having trouble breathing, seek medical help immediately. Go straight to your nearest hospital emergency department, or call an ambulance by dialling 000. If you think your child has swallowed something poisonous, call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126.

Tests for difficulty swallowing

Most of the time, difficulty swallowing is caused by a sore throat. In this case your child doesn’t need any tests.

But if your doctor thinks there might be a serious medical issue causing your child’s difficulty swallowing, the doctor might ask for some special tests. This could include imaging, blood tests or an assessment by a speech pathologist.

Treatment for difficulty swallowing

Treatment for difficulty swallowing depends on what’s causing the problem. For example, if your child has an infection, he might need antibiotics. Your GP will let you know.

If your child has difficulty swallowing because of a sore throat, infection or ulcers, avoid giving her spicy or sour foods. Offer regular, small sips of water instead.

If your child has a blocked nose, you can try some normal saline nasal drops or spray.

Paracetamol in recommended doses might help if your child is in pain when she tries to swallow.