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Swallowing after chest radiotherapy

You might have trouble swallowing after radiotherapy treatment to the chest. There are a number of things that can help you cope.

Swallowing problems during chest radiotherapy

Radiotherapy treatment for cancer in the chest might cause swelling and soreness in the throat.

During and after radiotherapy to this area, your chest might feel tight for a while. This side effect usually starts with a feeling of a lump in the throat when you swallow. Then it might get difficult to swallow solid foods.

You might not have any problems if you have a short course of treatment for advanced cancer. Some advanced cancers are treated with a single treatment of radiotherapy. This type of treatment is designed to relieve symptoms and it probably won't make it hard to swallow.

You might find that you have a sore throat or difficulty swallowing after a few days of treatment if you are having a longer course of radiotherapy.

The problem is likely to increase and may be at its worst about 10 days to 2 weeks after the radiotherapy has ended.

After this time it starts to get better. But if you are having chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy, the soreness and difficulty swallowing might be worse and last longer.

You can ask to see a dietitian at the radiotherapy clinic if you are having problems with eating and drinking.

Foods and drinks that can help

A soft, plain diet might help you feel more comfortable. Try different foods to find out which are easiest to swallow. Avoid foods that may irritate your throat. This includes:

  • dry foods
  • highly spiced foods
  • very hot foods or drinks
  • alcohol, particularly spirits

You may need high calorie drinks to boost your calorie intake, such as:

  • Build Up
  • Complan
  • Fortisip

Other high calorie food supplements are available on prescription. Ask your specialist nurse or dietitian to advise you.

The soreness usually gets better within a few weeks of your treatment finishing, but this depends on how much treatment you've had.

Medicines that can help

Your doctor or nurse can prescribe medicines to reduce the soreness, including:

  • painkillers
  • liquid medicines
  • gargles with aspirin

You could take painkillers about half an hour before meals to make eating less uncomfortable.

Last reviewed: 
22 Mar 2016
  • De Vita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita, V.T., Lawrence, T.S. and Rosenberg S.A.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

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