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

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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 dietitian at the radiotherapy clinic if you have problems with eating and drinking. Difficulty swallowing may be worse and can last longer if you have chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy.


Foods and drink tips

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 might 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 dietitian to advise you. Remember to drink plenty of other fluids too. The soreness usually gets better within a few weeks of your treatment ending, but this depends on how much treatment you've had.

Soft diet or tube feeding

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

If your throat is too sore to swallow food, you might need to have strong painkillers and one of the following

  • Liquid feed through a drip into a vein or tube down your nose to your stomach
  • A feeding tube put into your stomach through the skin and muscle of the abdomen (called a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy – PEG tube)

Your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) may stop your treatment for a while to allow you to recover but this is rare.


Medicines that can help

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

  • Painkillers
  • Liquid medicines
  • Aspirin gargles
  • Anti thrush medicines

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


Where to get more information

Find out about

Coping with diet problems

Books about diet for cancer patients

Side effects of radiotherapy

A soft diet

High calorie food supplements

Tube feeding

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

Share experiences on our online forum – Cancer Chat

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Updated: 14 March 2016