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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. How much difficulty you have depends on which part of your head or neck is 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

Other high calorie food supplements are available on prescription – ask your specialist nurse or dietician 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. 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 or to have fluids through a drip into a vein.


Medicines that can help

Your doctor may prescribe medicines to reduce the soreness, including

  • Painkillers
  • Liquid medicines
  • Gargles with aspirin
  • Anti thrush medicines
  • Other simple drugs

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.

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Updated: 4 July 2012