Pain when swallowing: Causes, symptoms, treatment

Pain when swallowing: Causes, symptoms, treatment
Photo source: Getty images

Pain when swallowing is a frequent symptom of inflammatory disease in the oral cavity, respiratory tract, but also in the digestive system. In addition to inflammation, it also occurs in oncological processes. A less serious cause is a spasm of the esophagus or its psychogenic constriction. The variety of causes and occurrence over a long period of time requires professional examination.

Pain when swallowing does not have to mean a serious disease right away. It is mainly an accompanying symptom in inflammatory diseases of the upper respiratory tract or if you have a cold.

In most cases, odynophagia, i.e. pain when swallowing, presents with an inflammation in the throat, for example, the common cold, the flu, or tonsillitis. Sometimes it can be a symptom for a tumour or cancer.

Pain when swallowing is sometimes associated with pain that radiates into the ear. Swallowing can be accompanied by chest pain. The reason for this is the common innervation of these parts or the close location of adjacent structures.

Inflammation in the oral cavity and respiratory tract

Painful swallowing is frequently associated with a sore throat and infectious diseases, e.g. tonsillitis or laryngitis. In most cases, people will also have a cough

In laryngitis and inflammation of the vocal cords, the person will experience painful swallowing as well as symptoms such as a dry, unproductive cough, sore throat, hoarseness or loss of voice, and an increase in body temperature can be observed. Later, a wet cough and coughing up mucus.

Chronic inflammation of the nasopharyngeal tonsils and chronic sinusitis will present with similar symptoms. Sore throat when swallowing and on one side is also a symptom of styloid process elongation. Then pain is also felt when moving the head.

Other inflammations include:

  • inflammation of the pharynx, i.e. pharyngitis
  • inflammation of the oesophagus, oesophagitis
  • inflammation of the larynx, i.e. epiglottitis
  • mumps or even parotitis, i.e. inflammation of the salivary gland

Inflammation of the tonsils

Tonsillitis is of both bacterial and viral origin. It is the name for inflammation of the palate, that is, the tonsils.  It is accompanied by severe pain in the throat and scratching in the throat. The pain in the tonsils is aggravated when swallowing saliva, liquids or food

Inflammation can appear on one side of the throat, making swallowing painful on one side.

A woman has a sore throat, inflammation, tonsillitis, spray for topical treatment
A sore throat aggravated by painful swallowing can be caused by tonsillitis. Source: Getty Images.

Pain when swallowing and other ailments

Swallowing pain can also be felt in oesophageal reflux disease. The gastric juice returns to the esophagus in this disease. This is associated with heartburn.

It also occurs as one of the symptoms of diseases not directly related to the oral cavity or upper respiratory tract. For example, syphilis in syphilitic angina. But it also manifests itself on various other mucous membranes.

Sometimes, in addition to pain when swallowing, there is also a sensation of food being stuck in the throat when eating. This is a symptom called dysphagia. In some cases, it is a neurological disease.

Model of human body, cutout with visible digestive system - esophagus and stomach
Pain when swallowing can be caused by diseases of the esophagus or stomach. Source: Getty Images.

The sensation of a foreign body in the throat, sometimes also described as the senstaion of having a lump, or a piece of food in the throat, also causes a psychogenic tightening of the esophageal muscles. Professionally, it is also referred to by the term globus hystericus.

Pain when swallowing can also be caused by an oesophageal diverticulum. This enlargement creates a blindly closed cavity. This makes it difficult for the bite to pass into the stomach. Chest pain, bad breath can be associated, too.

Similarly, pain also occurs with narrowing of the esophagus. The narrowing is the result of several causes, e.g. in ulcerous diseases that scar the wall after damage to the esophageal wall, where the original tissue is replaced by a non-functional scar.

The causes can also be neurological, for example, achalasia of the oesophagus, but also in oppression from the outside. The latter is formed in diseases of the thyroid gland, lung cancer, in the enlargement of nodules in the mediastinum.

Esophageal spasms are another example, also called diffuse esophageal spasm. The affected person experiences a spasm, a contraction of the musculature of the esophagus, which can be the result of drinking liquid that is too cold or food that is too hot, or when swallowing a larger bite that causes esophageal pain.

Cancer and pain when swallowing

Many times it is also associated with tumours in the oral cavity or upper respiratory tract. For example, cancer of the oesophagus, larynx or oral cavity, as well as other benign tumours, are manifested in this way.

Prolonged pain may indicate an oncological process.

In these cases, the pain is chronic and the person may feel as if some undigested bite of food were stuck in the throat. In oral cancer, tumours can be found on the tongue, tonsils or salivary glands.

Tumours are more common in at-risk groups. These include smokers in particular. In diseases or cancers in the oral cavity, the larynx or oesophagus, prompt diagnosis and removal of the tumour are very essential. This is why chronic pain felt when swallowing should never be neglected.


fshare on Facebook

Interesting resources

  • Schiff, Bradley A. (January 2016). "Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders: Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma". Merck Manuals Professional Edition. Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp.
  • Allan B. Wolfson, ed. (2005). Harwood-Nuss' Clinical Practice of Emergency Medicine (4th ed.). pp. 307–8. ISBN 0-7817-5125-X.
  • Scully, Crispian (2008). "Chapter 14: Soreness and ulcers". Oral and Maxillofacial Medicine: The Basis of Diagnosis and Treatment (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone. pp. 131–139. ISBN 978-0-443-06818-8.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff (8 August 2016). "Epiglottitis Symptoms". Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).
The aim of the portal and content is not to replace professional examination. The content is for informational and non-binding purposes only, not advisory. In case of health problems, we recommend seeking professional help, visiting or contacting a doctor or pharmacist.