We’ve all experienced the sensation of our drink going down the wrong way – the coughing, the watery eyes, the breathlessness. It’s certainly unpleasant. Now imagine if this happened every time you took a sip of water. Not only is this sensation unpleasant, but you would be at a much greater risk of developing a chest infection and possibly pneumonia. Unfortunately, this is all too commonplace for sufferers of dysphagia (swallowing disorder).
While dysphagia can be a debilitating and often upsetting condition, fortunately we have ways to modify all kinds of fluids, meaning people are still able to have their morning cup of coffee, or a beer with their mates without fear of coughing or choking.
When we swallow, there are approximately 50 pairs of muscles and many nerves that need to work together in perfect timing to help move food or fluid from our mouth to our stomach. If any of the moving parts in this finely tuned system come unstuck by moving too slow, too fast, or not at all, we can see drastic changes in our ability to swallow smoothly. Thin fluids, such as water, tea, coffee, and juice move very quickly in the mouth, meaning our swallow system must be in nearly perfect working order to cope with them. If not, we start to see signs of aspiration (food/fluids going onto the lungs).
Thickened fluids are modified drinks, often prescribed by a Speech Language Pathologist. When we thicken fluids, we change the speed at which they move through the mouth – often slowing their passage considerably. By decreasing this speed, it gives our swallow system time to coordinate the swallow, meaning that we may be at a reduced risk of fluids going down the wrong way.
There are three main levels of thickness – mildly, moderately and extremely thick. Mildly thick is sometimes referred to as ‘nectar thick’ and resembles naturally thicker drinks, such as fruit nectars. These fluids can be drunk from a cup, similar to think liquids. Moderately thick liquids are also known as ‘honey thick’, as they closely resemble the texture of room temperature honey. They pour slowly, but hold together well, and can be drunk from a cup. Extremely thick fluids are the highest level of fluid modification, and are sometimes referred to as ‘pudding thick’. These fluids often require a spoon, and are too thick to pour directly from a cup.
While thickened fluids are often a big change for patients, there are many cases where they may be the best option for reducing aspiration risk, and other harmful outcomes. Today, there are many different options for patients, including a range of pre-thickened drinks. Some newer thickening products can even thicken things like carbonated drinks, alcohol, hot drinks, and ice cream, meaning that patients are far less likely to experience restrictions on what they can drink, and can safely have their mid-morning cuppa, lemonade on a hot day, or gin and tonic in the evening.
If you would like more information about dysphagia, please contact your GP or Therapy Alliance Group on 1300 661 945.