Difficulty swallowing can be a symptom of cancer, particularly cancers of the neck, head, jaw, and mouth. It can also be caused by conditions that affect your nervous system and digestive tract, such as MS and COPD.

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) can be a symptom of cancers that affect your head, neck, mouth, and jaw. Tumor growth in these cancers can lead to blockages or changes in the ways your mouth or throat muscles work.

Health conditions that affect your nervous system and digestive tract and cancer treatments such as radiation therapy and surgery may also make it harder to swallow.

This article reviews the types of cancer and other health conditions that can potentially cause difficulty swallowing, along with other symptoms you may notice.

Difficulty swallowing can be caused by several cancers that affect your head and neck. This can happen when tumors create a blockage in your throat or make it hard for your lips, your tongue, or the muscles in your throat to work as usual.

Cancers that can cause this type of tumor are discussed below.

Thyroid cancer

Your thyroid is located at the base of your throat, and thyroid tumors can make swallowing difficult. Additional symptoms of thyroid cancer include:

  • neck pain
  • neck swelling
  • changes to how your voice sounds
  • trouble breathing
  • a chronic cough
  • a lump in your throat you can feel with your fingers

Laryngeal cancer

Your larynx is also known as your voice box. In addition to trouble swallowing, tumors that grow in your larynx can lead to symptoms such as:

Nasal and sinus cancers

Nasal and sinus cancers cause tumors to form around your nose and sinus cavity. This can affect how your mouth moves and can make swallowing difficult. Additional symptoms include:

Oral cancer

Oral cancers grow in your mouth and on your tongue. They can interfere with eating, swallowing, speaking, and other actions that depend on your mouth and tongue. They can also cause symptoms such as:

Throat cancer

Throat cancer causes tumor growth in your throat. It can lead to trouble swallowing, as well as symptoms such as:

Esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer affects the way your esophagus works. This can make swallowing very difficult. It can also cause symptoms such as:

Salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer affects your mouth and throat. Tumors in this area can result in difficulties swallowing and breathing in addition to symptoms such as:

  • a lump in your neck, jaw, or cheek
  • swelling in your face that affects how one side of your face looks
  • throat pain
  • jaw pain
  • cheek pain
  • ear pain
  • difficulty moving your jaw

Skin cancers on your face

Developing melanoma or any other type of skin cancer on your face can lead to difficulties with your mouth and jaw and trouble swallowing. It can also cause symptoms such as:

  • a red or shiny lump or bump on your skin
  • an open sore on your face that doesn’t heal
  • a spot or area on your face itches or burns
  • a spot on your face that grows and changes rapidly
  • a spot on your face that changes color
  • an area of skin on your face that feels scaly or patchy

Cancer isn’t the only condition that can lead to dysphagia. This symptom can also be caused by conditions that affect your nervous system and digestive tract and by injuries to your head or neck.

Common additional causes of difficulty swallowing include:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): GERD causes stomach acid to travel into your esophagus, or food pipe, and can cause swallowing issues.
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome: This rare but serious autoimmune disorder can lead to muscle weakness and trouble swallowing.
  • Stroke: A stroke can lead to a loss of control of the muscles that help you swallow.
  • Dementia: People in the later stages of dementia often have trouble swallowing.
  • Neurologic conditions: Progressive neurologic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, can lead to difficulty swallowing.
  • Head injuries: Any injury to your head may lead to difficulty controlling your tongue, jaw, and throat and cause dysphagia.
  • Developmental disabilities: Children with developmental disabilities sometimes have trouble swallowing.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD can cause trouble swallowing in addition to trouble breathing.

Sometimes, cancer treatments and cancer side effects can cause difficulty swallowing. For instance, radiation treatment to your throat can result in scarring. When scarring builds up on your throat walls, it can make swallowing harder.

Difficulty swallowing can also be the result of:

  • Surgery: Some surgical procedures to treat cancer can make swallowing harder. For example, procedures to remove tumors can also remove structures in areas such as your jaw, throat, or mouth.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy can intensify the effects of radiation and lead to faster scarring. Additionally, chemotherapy can make eating and drinking very difficult, which can lead to digestive concerns and pain when swallowing.

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) is a symptom of cancers that affect your head, neck, jaw, and mouth. As tumors grow in these areas, they can block swallowing or change the way the muscles in your mouth or throat work, making swallowing harder.

Dysphagia can also be caused by conditions such as stroke, head injury, dementia, and GERD, as well as by cancer treatments such as radiation and surgery.