Difficulty Breathing or Swallowing
What is it and what causes it?
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 difficult or 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.
Common causes of breathing problems
A multitude of conditions can cause shortness of breath. However, the most common causes of severe breathing problems include:
Infection of the lungs, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis
Elevated blood pressure in the brain due to tumor, stroke, or bleeding
Severe systemic infection
Common causes of swallowing problems
Many serious conditions can lead to life-threatening swallowing problems. If you have trouble swallowing on a regular basis, you may have a more serious problem that needs treatment. Below are some of the main causes that may require further treatment:
Immune system problem that causes swelling of the esophagus
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Signs & symptoms that are cause for concern
Symptoms of breathing problems
If your breathing difficulty is severe, sudden, or accompanied by any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible. These symptoms can be an indication of a serious problem that requires treatment as soon as possible.
Chest discomfort, pain, or pressure
Shortness of breath after only slight exertion or while at rest
Shortness of breath that wakes you up at night
Tightness in the throat
Symptoms of swallowing problems:
If your swallowing problem starts suddenly, is severe, or is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible. These symptoms can be an indication of a serious problem that requires treatment as soon as possible.
Have problems getting food or liquids to go down on the first try
Gag, choke, or cough when you swallow
Food or liquids come back up through your throat after you swallow
Feeling like foods are stuck in some part of your throat
Pain when swallowing
What do I do?
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.
Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service (GERMS)
Village C West 206
Student Health Center
Darnall Hall Ground Floor
To make an appt: (202) 687-2200
After hours clinician on-call: (202) 444-7243
Georgetown University Hospital
3800 Reservoir Road