Thousands of people die from swallowing difficulties each year. Since swallowing is a complex process, a person can have problems at several points. Lungs can develop bacteria or pneumonia from food and liquid particles which have been accidentally inhaled. Choking, malnutrition, and dehydration are also very serious complications from swallowing difficulties.
So how do you know when this is a problem? Several indicators exist that live-in caregivers should be aware of. First, listen for the verbal clues that indicate something is wrong:
“My food seems to get stuck in my throat.”
“It hurts to chew and swallow. “
“I cough whenever I drink anything.”
“Why does my nose run during and after I eat?”
People with dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or who have suffered a stroke and cannot communicate may have these difficulties but be unable to express them. Watch for these behaviors:
• A very long time to swallow after a bite, such as 2-3 minutes.
• Reluctance to eat or drink even though you believe it would be reasonable to be hungry or thirsty.
• Signs of dehydration, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting.
• A runny nose after eating, even though the person does not have a cold.
• Choking after drinking.
• Grimace while chewing or swallowing.
If you or your loved one’s home care provider has noticed any of these indicators, your loved one could have a variety of issues causing difficulties with chewing and swallowing:
• May not remember what to do with food (Alzheimer’s or dementia, stroke)
• Tongue and jaw to function may be impaired (stroke)
• May have mouth sores or painful teeth and gums
• Muscles and nerves that enable swallowing can be damaged and non-functioning (ALS, MS, stoke)
Dehydration, either from lack of fluids or caused by medications, contributes to dry-mouth and a reduction in saliva production. Too little saliva can mean food is not moistened enough to swallow and small bits may be pulled into the lungs when a breath is taken.
Schedule a doctor visit and provide as much information as you can about mealtime behaviors. Be sure to take a full medications list and medical history to help the physician piece together the puzzle of swallowing difficulties.
Of course, stay with your loved one while they are eating to provide assistance if they begin to choke. If you notice progressing weakness or signs of dehydration, seek medical attention immediately.
If you need help caring for an older adult, please contact us at Home Care Assistance in Omaha at (402) 763-9140.
From an article by R Sayadi and J Herskowitz, M.D., Getting A grip on Swallowing Problems