COPD and Swallowing

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. COPD comes with a variety of challenges. One common but not often discussed difficulty is trouble swallowing (also called dysphagia).


Breathing is an important body function, but it also plays an important role in swallowing. In order to swallow properly, your airway must be covered for protection, and your breathing must stop for a split second to allow food to pass into the esophagus. This pause in breathing is a common issue for individuals with COPD. It becomes increasingly difficult to coordinate breathing and swallowing and can put you at risk for inhaling food and liquid while attempting to swallow. Shortness of breath during meals is also a common difficulty with COPD and can worsen as the disease progresses.


The most useful strategies involve conserving energy to prevent shortness of breath during meals. A speech-language pathologist can help you decide which are most important for you and help you implement these strategies effectively:


  • Take one bite or sip at a time
  • Take one pill at a time
  • Stop during meals for rest breaks
  • Take smaller bites, the size of a teaspoon or smaller
  • Avoid strenuous exercise right before meals
  • Pay attention to your breathing
  • If able, eat smaller meals throughout the day
  • During your meal, consider starting with foods that require the most energy to chew (such as meat) and end the meal with foods requiring the least amount of energy (such as mashed potatoes)
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