What should I do if I have difficulty swallowing or breathing?

Symptom Database

Having difficulty swallowing or breathing can be a frightening experience. These symptoms, known as dysphagia and shortness of breath, respectively, can be indicative of underlying health issues that require attention. If you find yourself experiencing trouble swallowing or breathing, it is important to understand the potential causes and seek appropriate medical care. In this article, we will explore the possible reasons behind these symptoms and provide guidance on what to do if you encounter them.

Understanding Difficulty Swallowing

Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, refers to the sensation of food or liquid getting stuck or having trouble passing through the throat or esophagus. This condition can occur at any age and may be caused by various factors, including:

  • Narrowing of the esophagus
  • Damage to the esophagus
  • Neurological disorders
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • Tumors or growths

If you experience difficulty swallowing, it is crucial to consult a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis. They may recommend tests such as an endoscopy or a barium swallow study to identify the underlying cause. Treatment options will depend on the specific diagnosis, ranging from medication and lifestyle changes to surgical interventions.

Trouble Breathing: A Cause for Concern

Trouble breathing, also known as respiratory distress, is a serious symptom that should never be ignored. It can manifest as a feeling of tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, or the inability to take in enough air. Breathing difficulties can be caused by various factors, including:

  • Asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Lung infections
  • Heart conditions
  • Allergic reactions
  • Anxiety or panic attacks

If you are experiencing breathing difficulties, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention. Call emergency services or visit the nearest emergency room if your symptoms are severe or worsening rapidly. Prompt medical intervention can be life-saving in such situations.

What to Do if You Have Difficulty Swallowing or Breathing

1. Assess the Severity of Your Symptoms

Before taking any action, it is important to evaluate the severity of your symptoms. If you are experiencing mild discomfort or occasional trouble swallowing or breathing, you may consider trying some self-care measures at home. However, if your symptoms are severe, rapidly worsening, or accompanied by other concerning signs, seek immediate medical attention.

2. Stay Calm and Try Relaxation Techniques

Feeling anxious or panicked can exacerbate difficulty swallowing or breathing. Try to stay calm and practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises or meditation. These techniques can help alleviate stress and improve your overall well-being.

3. Modify Your Eating and Drinking Habits

If you are experiencing difficulty swallowing, making certain modifications to your eating and drinking habits can be helpful. Consider the following tips:

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals
  • Take smaller bites and chew thoroughly
  • Avoid dry or hard-to-swallow foods
  • Sip water or other liquids with meals

4. Seek Medical Evaluation

If your symptoms persist or worsen, it is crucial to seek medical evaluation. A healthcare professional can conduct a thorough examination, order appropriate tests, and provide a proper diagnosis. They will then recommend the most suitable treatment plan based on your specific condition.

Once you have received a diagnosis, it is important to follow the recommended treatment plan diligently. This may involve taking prescribed medications, undergoing therapy, or making lifestyle changes. Adhering to the treatment plan will increase your chances of managing or resolving the underlying cause of your difficulty swallowing or breathing.

6. Seek Support

Dealing with difficulty swallowing or breathing can be emotionally challenging. Reach out to support groups or seek counseling to connect with others who may be experiencing similar symptoms. Sharing your concerns and experiences can provide valuable support and guidance throughout your journey.


Difficulty swallowing or breathing should never be taken lightly. These symptoms can be indicative of underlying health issues that require medical attention. If you find yourself experiencing trouble swallowing or breathing, assess the severity of your symptoms and seek appropriate medical care. Remember to stay calm, modify your eating and drinking habits if necessary, and follow the recommended treatment plan. By taking proactive steps and seeking professional help, you can effectively manage or resolve these symptoms and improve your overall quality of life.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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