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Breathing & Swallowing Problems

By Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell ; Updated August 14, 2017

Difficulty swallowing, medically defined as dysphagia, means it takes longer and requires more effort to move what you eat and drink from your mouth to your stomach. Swallowing problems may arise when you eat too fast and/or don't chew your food thoroughly. Swallowing may be impossible in severe cases and may be a sign of a serious health condition. Difficulty breathing, known as dyspnea, can occur during mild or vigorous exercise or be a symptom of lung disease. Certain medical conditions may cause both breathing and swallowing difficulties.

Breathing Problems

Breathing problems caused by vigorous exercise or nasal congestion are normal and generally no cause for alarm, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, or UMMC. Asthma, anxiety and panic attacks can also make it hard to breathe at times. Heart disease can leave you breathless if your heart can't pump enough blood to provide oxygen to your body.

Swallowing Difficulties

Swallowing difficulties may occur when food becomes lodged in the throat or as it travels from the esophagus into the stomach, reports Medline Plus. Symptoms may include chest pain or pressure. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, can also make swallowing difficult.

Swallowing difficulties may occur when you eat too fast or don't thoroughly chew your food. Chronic swallowing problems may be a sign of a serious health condition. For example, swallowing tends to become increasingly difficult when esophageal tumors are present.

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Trouble with both breathing and swallowing may be a sign autonomic nervous system disorders, notes Medline plus. Autonomic disorders may result from other conditions that harm autonomic nerves such as alcoholism, diabetes and Parkinson's disease. Autonomic disorders can be life-threatening when they severely compromise breathing or heart function.

Shortness of breath and swallowing problems are often symptoms of an infection of the lungs called aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration occurs when you accidentally breathe in food or liquids that get into airways and lungs, reports the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center or UPMC.


Older adults are more likely to develop swallowing problems due to wear and tear on the esophagus, points out the Mayo Clinic. Babies born prematurely may be at high risk of developing problems like gastrointestinal disorders, which can lead to swallowing difficulties.


Treatment for swallowing problems will vary depending on the cause. Eating slowly and chewing food thoroughly may relieve minor swallowing difficulties. Swallowing difficulties linked to GERD may be treated with antacids.

A variety of medications can treat breathing problems. Antibiotics are typically prescribed to treat aspiration pneumonia. Breathing problems associated with autonomic nervous system disorders may improve when the primary condition is treated.

Severe breathing and swallowing difficulties should be evaluated by your health care provider.

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