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Difficulty swallowing

You might have trouble swallowing (dysphagia) during and after radiotherapy treatment to the chest. There are a number of things that you can do to help. 

Swallowing problems

Radiotherapy to the chest might cause swelling and soreness in the throat. This side effects usually starts with a feeling of a lump in the throat.

Whether you have problems swallowing depends on where exactly you are having treatment and if your throat is in the radiotherapy field. It also depends on the dose of treatment. Difficulty swallowing may be worse and can last longer if you have chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy.

As with all radiotherapy side effects, they tend to build up over time. This means you might experience problems after about a week and then this can continue for around 2 weeks after radiotherapy.

In some hospitals, you'll see a dietician weekly during treatment. If not you can ask to see a dietitian if you're having problems.

Food and drink tips

You might find you'll need to make changes to the food and drink you usually eat. A soft, plain diet is usually best. 

Foods

Try different foods to find out which are easiest to swallow. This includes:

  • porridge
  • soup or broth
  • milk

Avoid eating things that may irritate your throat. Such as:

  • dry foods
  • spicy foods
  • very hot foods or drinks
  • alcohol, particularly spirits

Drinks

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.

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: 
11 Feb 2019
  • Devita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT Devita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer Health, 2015

  • Practical Radiotherapy Planning
    A Barrett and others, 
    Hodder Arnold, 2009

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