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6 Strategies for Swallowing Safely with COPD

COPD Basics

May 06, 2024

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Photography by Lightsy/Stocksy United

Photography by Lightsy/Stocksy United

by Rebecca Isaacson

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Thomas Johnson, PA-C

•••••

by Rebecca Isaacson

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Thomas Johnson, PA-C

•••••

Swallowing can become more difficult with COPD. Here are six tips to help you eat safely.

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), then you know that getting oxygen is your body’s number-one motivator.

Do you find that eating can prevent you from getting enough oxygen? You might feel short of breath when you eat and even have difficulty getting your food down.

Your body’s systems must work together to function well. Swallowing and breathing require delicate coordination. If they disrupt one another, you might have difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia.

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How does COPD affect swallowing?

Your body naturally tries to take in more oxygen. We all get oxygen by breathing air into our lungs, but COPD might damage your airways and make them more narrow. Similarly, the inhale/exhale exchange that needs to happen is restricted when you have COPD, so your body naturally tries to breathe more air to get more oxygen.

As your COPD progresses, you may notice that swallowing becomes more difficult because your body is looking for more oxygen at the same time. This feeling can happen when swallowing food, water, and even saliva.

The harmony that should take place is that you should swallow and then immediately exhale air. But if you have COPD, you swallow and then immediately inhale air. This swallow-inhale pattern may be the cause of your dysphagia, according to a 2020 research review.

The two systems that come together in your throat are your airway (trachea) and food pipe (esophagus). Your trachea brings air into your lungs, and your esophagus brings food or liquid into your stomach.

Ideally, your trachea and esophagus work separately within about half a second. If they function at the same time, guess where the food goes? Into your lungs.

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How do you know if food is going into your lungs?

Do you have a cough after you take a bite of food or sip a drink? Do you ever find yourself choking when you’re eating? Does your voice ever sound wet or gurgly after you swallow?

These may be signs that you are choking as you swallow. In medical terms, this is called aspiration, and it can lead to an infection in your lungs known as aspiration pneumonia.

Aspiration pneumonia can become a serious concern. If you experience symptoms of pneumonia, such as shortness of breath, fever, and cough, you should seek medical attention.

Healthcare professionals diagnose aspiration pneumonia based on a chest X-ray and prescribe antibiotics and supplemental oxygen for treatment.

This condition may even require a trip to the hospital for continuous monitoring and additional treatment. Sometimes, aspiration pneumonia can be silent, meaning you won’t know it has happened. Below, learn the ways to prevent aspiration so you can stay healthy.

6 ways to tackle swallowing difficulty with COPD

Let’s look at six ways you can improve your swallowing if you have COPD, based on information published by the National Institutes of Health.

1. Limit distractions when you’re eating

First off, set the stage for a calm meal. Turn off the TV and other electronic devices so you can focus on your plate. It’s also best to eat when you’re not tired.

2. Cut your food into small pieces

Larger food pieces are more likely to get stuck in your airway. Smaller pieces go down smoothly. Don’t risk it for a big bite of food.

3. Eat and drink slowly

Slow it down and enjoy your food. The faster you consume your meal, the more likely you are to choke on it.

4. Eat smaller portions

Smaller portions mean less food in your stomach, which means less time to digest the food. This strategy will help ease your breathing in a shorter amount of time.

5. Tuck your chin when you swallow

You can tuck your chin down toward your chest as you swallow. This position helps close the airway to your lungs. If your airway is closed, your food has only one place to go: your stomach.

6. Thicken your liquids before you drink them

Thin liquids, such as water, juice, and coffee, travel down your throat faster and can easily slip down the wrong pipe. You can purchase thickener packets to add to any drink. Drinking your beverages thickened will help keep things moving slowly.

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Takeaway

COPD and swallowing are tied together. You can learn to swallow correctly to prevent food or liquids from entering your lungs.

If you think you’re showing any of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s important to consult your doctor. They can provide screening tools to assess your swallowing and valuable tips to keep the food going in the right direction.

Medically reviewed on May 06, 2024

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About the author

Rebecca Isaacson

Becca Isaacson, BSN, RN is a freelance writer and Registered Nurse. She uses her writing and nursing background to educate and inform readers about health and wellness. She is passionate about empowering her audience to make informed decisions about their health. Becca received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Duke University.

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