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Feeding and swallowing during radiotherapy fact sheet

Feeding and swallowing during radiotherapy

What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia is the term used to describe difficulty with swallowing, eating and/or drinking. A speech pathologist is a specialist in managing dysphagia. Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) can be caused by:

  • incoordination and/or weakening of the muscles in the mouth and throat used for swallowing
  • loss of sensation in the mouth and throat making it difficult to feel food and drink residue
  • pain and swelling of the mouth, tongue, jaw and throat due to treatment
  • difficulty protecting the airway during swallowing, causing food and drink to go down the wrong way to the lungs (aspiration).

Side effects of radiation on feeding and swallowing:

The side effects your child experiences from radiation therapy may depend on location and dose of radiation your child is receiving, the length of treatment and your child’s general health.

Here is a list of common side effects children can experience during their radiation treatment which may impact their ability to eat and/or swallow safely:

  • Difficulties with chewing due to weakness and/or incoordination of the muscles your child uses for chewing and swallowing. This can also lead to your child to feeling tired quickly during meals.
  • Difficulties with swallowing (dysphagia). This could be due to your child experiencing pain when swallowing and/or incoordination of the muscles your child uses for swallowing. This may lead to difficulties with your child’s swallowing and communication.
  • Frequent coughing when eating or drinking may indicate that food and drink is ‘going down the wrong way’ to the lungs. This is known aspiration and can lead to chest infections.
  • Painful swallowing (odynophagia).
  • Ulceration of the mouth, tongue and throat (mucositis).
  • Swelling (oedema) around site of treatment (head and neck) can impact on your child’s strength and/or range of movement of their jaw, tongue, voice box and throat muscles.
  • Altered taste (dysgeusia) – your child may start to refuse their favourite foods because they no longer taste the same. Some children experience an unpleasant or metallic taste every time they eat. Your child may begin to prefer salty or strongly flavoured foods.
  • Saliva changes – reduced saliva production or thickening of saliva for the mouth and throat.
  • Dry mouth and throat (xerostomia).
  • Jaw stiffness (trismus).
  • Oral pain – may be attributed to tooth sensitivity or decay, jaw stiffness (trismus), muscle changes in strength and mouth ulcers.
  • Reduced appetite, leading to weight loss.

How can a speech pathologist help your child?

The speech pathologist can assess your child’s feeding and swallowing and may recommend:

  • Changes to the texture and consistency of foods and drinks your child consumes to make it easier for them swallow.
  • Providing suggestions to keep your child’s mouth clean and healthy and assist with reducing any sticky / thick saliva in your child’s mouth and throat.
  • Providing strategies and /or exercises to help make your child’s eating and drinking as safe and enjoyable as possible.
  • Liaison with the oncology dietitians to ensure your child is meeting the nutrition and hydration requirements.

Dental considerations/mouth care:

After eating and drinking, it is important to encourage your child to clean their teeth and use a mouth wash. This prevents your child from developing tooth decay and keeps your child’s mouth linings feeling clean and comfortable. See your dentist or oncologist for further information.

When will my child see the speech pathologist?

If you have concerns with your child’s communication or feeding/swallowing let your oncology team know so they can make a referral. The speech pathologist may see you either before, during or after your treatment. During these sessions, a speech pathologist will work with you and your child to develop a personalised assessment and management program to address your family’s goals.

Your speech pathologist is:

Phone: ___________________
Email:  __________________
Hours:  __________________

Contact us

Speech Pathology Department – Oncology (7a)
Level 7, Queensland Children’s Hospital
501 Stanley Street
South Brisbane 4101
t: 07 3068 2375

In an emergency, always call 000.

If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Resource No: FS327. Developed by the Speech Pathology Department, Queensland Children’s Hospital. Updated: December 2018. All information contained in this sheet has been supplied by qualified professionals as a guideline for care only. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.