Causes of difficulty swallowing or dysphagia
Children of all ages can have difficulty swallowing food or liquids.
Difficulty swallowing is most often caused by a sore throat. The sore throat might be caused by infections including colds, glandular fever, mouth infection, tonsillitis or mouth ulcers.
For babies, a common cause of difficulty swallowing is a cold that’s causing a blocked nose. Babies need to breathe through their noses while breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, and a blocked nose makes it hard for them to swallow.
Difficulty swallowing can have other causes too, including:
- gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, which can cause inflammation
- insect bites and other allergic reactions, which can cause airway swelling
- foreign objects in the airways
- medical conditions like cerebral palsy, which can affect the nerves or muscles needed for swallowing.
The medical term for difficulty swallowing is dysphagia.
Medical help: when to get it for difficulty swallowing
Go to a hospital emergency department straight away if your child:
- has swallowed or breathed in a foreign object
- can’t swallow anything at all, including their own saliva
- is having trouble breathing.
You should take your child to the GP if your child is having difficulty swallowing and they:
- might have been bitten by an insect
- have a fever and seem unwell.
If your child is having significant 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 a household poison, 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. These could include an X-ray, an endoscopy, 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 a bacterial infection, they might need antibiotics. Your GP will let you know.
If your child has difficulty swallowing because of a sore throat or ulcers, offer your child regular, small sips of water. It’s best to avoid giving your child spicy or sour foods.
If your child has a blocked nose, you can try some saline nasal drops or spray.
Paracetamol or ibuprofen in recommended doses might help if your child is in pain when they try to swallow.