Difficulty swallowing or oropharyngeal dysphagia, if not detected early or treated correctly can lead to serious consequences, to the point where it is life-threatening.

The main complications of dysphagia

Elderly woman suffering from dysphagia

People who have difficulty swallowing often reduce their food portions and variety due to loss of appetite or discomfort when swallowing.

Another reason why patients with swallowing difficulties reduce their food intake is the lack of appeal of crushed or pureed food. Repetitive colors and unrecognizable flavors can be some of the reasons for this disinterest.

It should also be noted that people with dysphagia often have chronic diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease, stroke or Parkinson's disease, which leads to increased nutritional needs.

All these factors may explain why people suffering from dysphagia are at greater risk of weight loss and malnutrition. Data published in medical journals cite a prevalence of malnutrition of up to 40% in older people with dysphagia living in nursing homes.


See a specialist if the person suffering from dysphagia has unintentionally lost weight in the past weeks or 3 months. 

Many patients with dysphagia are afraid of choking or coughing during or after consuming liquids. Coupled with the deterioration of thirst sensation in older people, people with dysphagia have lower water intake. This puts them at a high risk of dehydration.


did you know hydration


For more information, see the section on hydration in the patient with dysphagia.

drawing lungs


One of the complications that can lead to serious problems in the patient with dysphagia is aspiration pneumonia due to the entry of food, drinks or saliva into the airways. The main causes of this complication are:

  • Slow airway closure.
  • Slow opening of sphincter that opens to the esophagus.
  • High residue of food bolus that is retained in the throat.
  • Absence of coughing mechanism.
  • Food bolus or saliva colonized by pathogenic microorganisms, due to poor oral hygiene or periodontal (gum) diseases.


Persons with dysphagia often suffer from reduced quality of life. This is due to factors such as difficulty in having normal food intake, decreased motivation to eat, reduced appetite, increased time spent on meals etc. 

Consult a healthcare professional if you cough or feel suffocated during or after swallowing, develop a recurring fever for no apparent cause, notice changes in your voice after eating, or have food residue left in your throat. For more information, see the chapter on signs and symptoms and how to detect oropharyngeal dysphagia .

Recommended bibliography:

  • Clavé Civit P, García Peris P. Guide to diagnosis and nutritional and rehabilitative treatment of oropharyngeal dysphagia. Ed. Glosa, 2011
  • Namasivayam AM et al. Malnutrition and Dysphagia in long-term care: a systematic review. J Nutr Gerontol Geriatr 2015; 34 (1): 1-21
  • Ekberg O, Hamdy S, Woisard V, Wuttge-Hannig A, Ortega P. Social and psychological burden of dysphagia: its impact on diagnosis and treatment. Dysphagia. 2002;17(2):139-46.