Back to fact sheets
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service

Feeding and swallowing during chemotherapy fact sheet

Feeding and swallowing during chemotherapy

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 chemotherapy on feeding and swallowing:

The side effects your child may experience from chemotherapy depend on your child’s treatment regime, the amount and type of a chemotherapy drug 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 chemotherapy treatment which may impact their ability to eat and/or swallow safely:

  • 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.
  • Nausea, reduced appetite and weight loss.
  • Fatigue – chewing can become like exercise! Fatigue can impact on your child’s ability to chew foods effectively.
  • Ulceration of the mouth, tongue and throat (mucositis).
  • Oral and jaw pain – may be attributed to tooth sensitivity or decay, muscle wasting (muscle atrophy) and mouth ulcers.
  • Heightened gag reflex related to taste changes.
  • Sensation of food feeling stuck in their throat.

If your child experiences any of these side effects, it is important that you inform a member of your oncology team as soon as possible, as a referral to speech pathology may be required.

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 your 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: FS328. 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.