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Feeding and swallowing after surgery fact sheet

Feeding and swallowing after surgery

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 surgery on feeding and swallowing

Some children may already have difficulty with swallowing before oncology treatment because of the size and location of their cancer or tumour.

Below is a list of common side effects children may experience before or after their surgery that can 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 feeling tired quickly during meals.
  • Difficulties with swallowing (dysphagia) due to neurological and structural changes. These changes may impact the delivery of messages from the brain to coordinate the muscles used for swallowing.
  • Swelling (oedema) around site of surgery (head and neck) can impact a child’s strength and/or range of movement of their jaw, tongue, voice box and throat muscles. This may lead to difficulties with your child’s swallowing.
  • Pain when swallowing during to changes in structures or swelling.
  • Difficulty protecting the airway during swallowing, causing food and drink to go down the wrong way to the lungs (aspiration). This can lead to chest infections.
  • Changes to level of alertness – your child may be too drowsy to eat food and drink safely for a while.
  • Saliva changes – reduced saliva production or thickening of saliva for the mouth and throat. This can cause discomfort and make managing dry food textures challenging.
  • Sore throat and/or voice changes – when your child has surgery, they have to be intubated and then extubated. This may cause swelling to the throat, discomfort and even pain when swallowing, coughing or during using their voice.

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 lining 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: FS329. 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.