Swallowing Problems After Head and Neck Cancer

Treatment for head and neck cancer can cause swallowing problems. Speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, help people who have trouble swallowing. 

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About Swallowing Problems After Head and Neck Cancer

Treatment for head and neck cancer can cause swallowing problems, called dysphagia (dis-FAY-juh). Head and neck cancer includes laryngeal cancer and oral cancer. How much trouble you may have depends on:

  • the type of cancer 
  • the type of surgery you need
  • other treatments that you need, like radiation or chemotherapy 

Signs of Swallowing Problems After Head and Neck Cancer

You may have the following problems after treatment for head and neck cancer:

  • needing to swallow many times to clear food from your mouth and throat  
  • having a gurgly, wet-sounding voice after swallowing
  • coughing or choking
  • throat clearing while eating
  • having pain when swallowing
  • having dry mouth or throat

Causes of Swallowing Problems After Head and Neck Cancer 

Surgery is often needed to treat cancer in the mouth, throat, or voice box, called the larynx. You may need radiation therapy before or after surgery. Each type of treatment can cause swallowing problems.  

Oral, or mouth, surgery can cause food or drinks to spill out of your mouth. You may have trouble chewing. It may be hard to control food and liquid in your mouth. 

Throat surgery can make it hard for food and liquid to move from your mouth to your esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that goes from the back of your throat to your stomach. Your airway is next to your esophagus. After surgery, food or liquid might go into your airway instead of into your esophagus. This is aspiration, and it can make you cough or choke.

A laryngectomy is surgery to remove part or all of your voice box. It can make it hard to move food and liquid from your mouth to your esophagus.

Radiation therapy can make your mouth or throat sore. You may eat less because of the pain. You may have a dry mouth or less saliva. It may be hard to move your mouth, tongue, or throat. It may be harder to chew and move food from your mouth and throat. 

Testing for Swallowing Problems After Head and Neck Cancer

You may see an SLP before you have surgery or radiation. The SLP can talk to you about changes you may have in your speech and swallowing. After surgery, the SLP will test you to see how well you eat and drink. The SLP will talk to you about the type of food you can eat and what you can drink. You may need softer foods or thicker liquids for a little while. You may need a feeding tube while you heal. 

Treatment for Swallowing Problems After Head and Neck Cancer

The SLP can work with you to improve how you chew and swallow. The SLP may suggest:

  • treatment to help you use your muscles to chew and swallow  
  • ways you should sit or hold your head when you eat
  • strategies to make your swallow better and safer
  • eating softer foods or drinking thicker drinks to help you swallow 

See ASHA information for professionals on the Practice Portal’s Head and Neck Cancer page.

Other Resources  

This list does not include every website on this topic. ASHA does not endorse the information on these sites.

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