Severe cases of chronic acid reflux may cause difficulty swallowing. If you’re having a hard time swallowing, you can treat it with medication, lifestyle changes, and surgery.

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Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing. You may experience this if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux.

You could have dysphagia just occasionally or on a more regular basis. Although it can feel scary, it’s a very manageable complication.

Read on to learn more about dysphagia and how to manage it.

Chronic acid reflux can irritate your esophagus. Dysphagia can be a direct result of damage to your esophagus due to inflammation, known as esophagitis.

Over time, scar tissue can develop in your esophagus, which can make it more narrow. This is known as an esophageal stricture.

Also, the lining of your esophagus can change over time. In a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, your esophageal lining becomes similar to the lining of your intestines. This increases your risk of esophageal cancer, which can also cause dysphagia.

Symptoms can vary from person to person. You may have difficulty swallowing solid foods but not liquids, or you may even have the opposite problem.

In some cases, you could have trouble swallowing any substance, even your own saliva.

You may have additional symptoms, including:

  • pain when swallowing
  • sore throat
  • choking
  • coughing
  • gurgling or regurgitating food or stomach acids
  • feeling that food is stuck behind your breastbone
  • burning sensation behind your breastbone
  • a hoarse throat

Learn more about the symptoms of dysphagia.

If you have dysphagia caused by your acid reflux, it’s important to treat the underlying cause. Your doctor will likely recommend an endoscopy to rule out esophageal cancer.

Some ways you can manage GERD include:


Medication is one of the first treatments for dysphagia related to reflux.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are medications that reduce stomach acids. They can help to manage your symptoms and heal erosion of the esophagus caused by reflux.

Some PPI drugs include:

  • esomeprazole
  • lansoprazole
  • omeprazole (Prilosec)
  • pantoprazole
  • rabeprazole

You typically take PPIs once daily. Other GERD medications, such as H2 blockers, can also reduce symptoms.

However, they can’t actually heal the damage to your esophagus. The medication stops the acidity from damaging your esophagus, and over time, it gradually heals on its own.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes can make eating and swallowing more comfortable.

If you drink or smoke, you might want to consider quitting. Smoking and alcohol can irritate your already compromised esophagus, and they can increase the likelihood of heartburn.

Ask your doctor for a referral for medication or a support group if you need help quitting drinking or smoking.

It can also be useful to try to eat small meals frequently instead of three large meals per day. You can also avoid sticky foods, such as jam or peanut butter, and cut your foods into small pieces to make swallowing easier.

Be sure to chew your food thoroughly.

Your symptoms may act up when you eat foods that are common triggers for acid reflux, so you might want to avoid them. Some of these include:

  • tomato-based products
  • citrus fruits and juices
  • fatty or fried foods
  • alcohol
  • caffeinated beverages
  • chocolate
  • peppermint


In severe cases, surgery or endoscopic intervention may be necessary.

Some surgical procedures used to treat GERD, Barrett’s esophagus, and esophageal strictures can also reduce or eliminate episodes of dysphagia. These procedures include:

  • Endoscopic procedures: These strengthen the LES and prevent acid reflux. The Stretta system creates scar tissue in the LES through a series of small burns. The NDO Plicator and EndoCinch procedures strengthen the LES with stitches.
  • Esophageal dilation: This is a common surgical treatment for dysphagia. In this procedure, a tiny balloon attached to an endoscope stretches the esophagus to treat strictures.
  • Partial removal of the esophagus: This procedure removes portions of severely damaged esophagus or areas that have become cancerous due to Barrett’s esophagus. Then, a surgeon attaches the remaining esophagus to the stomach.

Dysphagia can be frightening, but it isn’t always a chronic condition. Speak with your doctor if you have any swallowing difficulties or experience other GERD symptoms.

You can manage swallowing associated with GERD with lifestyle changes and medication.