Swallowing after head and neck radiotherapy | Cancer Research UK
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Swallowing after head and neck radiotherapy

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about how to cope if you have difficulty swallowing during and after radiotherapy to your neck. There is information about


Swallowing problems during head and neck radiotherapy

Radiotherapy treatment for cancer in the head or neck area can cause swelling and soreness in the throat. Your throat may be very sore and you may find it difficult to swallow solid foods. The amount of difficulty you have depends on the part of your head or neck being treated. It also depends on the dose of your treatment. You can ask to see a dietician at the radiotherapy clinic if you are having problems with eating and drinking.

Difficulty swallowing may be worse and can last longer if you are having chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy.


Foods and drinks that can help

A soft, plain diet may help. 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. You can ask your specialist nurse, radiographer or dietician to advise you. Remember to drink plenty of other fluids too. The soreness usually gets better within a few weeks of your treatment finishing, but this depends on how much treatment you've had.

If you have soreness following radiotherapy and chemotherapy given together, you may need to eat a soft diet for some weeks. Some people need to go into hospital for feeding through a tube. You may need to have fluids through a drip into a vein if you get dehydrated.

If your throat is very sore, and swallowing is very painful, you may need to have strong painkillers and one of the following

Very rarely, your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) may stop your treatment for a while to allow you to recover.


Medicines that can help

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

  • Painkillers
  • Liquid medicines
  • Gargles with aspirin
  • Anti thrush medicines

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


Where to get more information

There is information about coping with diet problems in the section about coping physically with cancer. And there are books and booklets about diet for cancer patients in our head and neck cancer section, some of which are free.

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy and internal radiotherapy in this section. There is also detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy. We have specific pages about the other side effects of head and neck radiotherapy, including

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of other people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 12 May 2014