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
  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Heart failure
  • Elevated blood pressure in the brain due to tumor, stroke, or bleeding
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Anemia
  • Severe systemic infection
  • Allergies
  • Obesity

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
  • Esophageal spasms
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Esophageal tumors

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
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath after only slight exertion or while at rest
  • Shortness of breath that wakes you up at night
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Wheezing

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.

Resources

Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service (GERMS)
Village C West 206
(202) 687-4357

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
Emergency Room
Call 911