What is odynophagia?

“Odynophagia” is the medical term for painful swallowing. Pain can be felt in your mouth, throat, or esophagus. You may experience painful swallowing when drinking or eating food. Sometimes swallowing difficulties, known as dysphagia, can accompany the pain, but odynophagia is often a condition of its own.

There’s no one single cause or treatment measure designated for odynophagia. That’s because painful swallowing is related to numerous underlying health conditions. Read on to learn some of the most common medical issues that cause painful swallowing and what to do about them.

Odynophagia vs. dysphagia

Sometimes odynophagia is confused with dysphagia, which is another condition that has to do with swallowing. Dysphagia refers to difficulty swallowing. With this condition, swallowing difficulties occur on a regular basis. It’s also most common in older adults.

Like odynophagia, dysphagia is linked to a variety of causes. The precise treatment depends on the underlying health problem. Dysphagia can be so severe that you may not be able to swallow at all.

Dysphagia and odynophagia may occur at the same time. They can also have the same underlying causes. However, you might have swallowing difficulties without any pain. If this is the case, you likely have dysphagia only. Alternatively, odynophagia can cause pain without swallowing troubles.

Causes

Odynophagia may sometimes be related to a minor condition, such as the common cold. In such cases, painful swallowing will resolve on its own with time.

Chronic painful swallowing may be related to another underlying cause. There are several medical conditions that can cause odynophagia. Among the possibilities are:

  • Cancer: Sometimes chronic painful swallowing is an early sign of esophageal cancer. This is caused by tumors that develop in your esophagus. Esophageal cancer may develop from long-term smoking, alcohol abuse, or persistent heartburn. It can also be hereditary.
  • Candida infection: This is a type of fungal (yeast) infection that may occur in your mouth. It can spread and cause esophageal symptoms like painful swallowing.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): This develops from the lower sphincter in the esophagus not closing properly. As a result, stomach acid leaks back into the esophagus. You might have GERD if you experience painful swallowing along with other symptoms, such as heartburn or chest pain.
  • HIV: Esophagus problems occur often in people with HIV. According to the AIDS Education and Treatment Center Program, Candida infection is the most common cause. Sometimes antiretroviral agents used to treat HIV result in acid reflux. This can then lead to other symptoms like odynophagia.
  • Ulcers: These are sores that can occur in your mouth, throat, or esophagus, as well as your stomach. Ulcers may also be caused by untreated GERD. The long-term use of anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB), can increase your risk of ulcers.

Odynophagia can also be caused by medical treatments, such as radiation therapy for cancer. Some prescription medications may also lead to painful swallowing.

Diagnosis

Odynophagia is usually diagnosed with an endoscopy. This involves a small lighted camera called an endoscope. It’s placed in your throat so your doctor can get a better look at your esophagus. They’ll also have you try to swallow during the test.

Your doctor may order other tests related to any suspected underlying causes of painful swallowing. However, it’s important to note that your blood tests may come back as normal.

Treatment

The precise treatment plan for odynophagia depends on the underlying cause.

Medications

Depending on the underlying medical condition, painful swallowing may be resolved with medications. For example, prescription medications used to treat GERD can help prevent stomach acid from creeping back up into the pharynx and esophagus. In turn, you may notice improvements in pain when you swallow.

Medications may also be used in treating other underlying causes, such as HIV and infections. Candida infections must be treated with antifungal agents.

Surgery

In cases of esophageal tumors or carcinoma, your doctor may recommend surgical removal of these cells. This option may also be used for GERD if medications don’t help your condition.

Time

If your doctor doesn’t detect any underlying medical issue, painful swallowing might resolve on its own with time. This is common after having a cold or severe allergies. Talk to your doctor if you have recurring discomfort with swallowing.

Outlook

When caught and treated early, many underlying health conditions can improve, along with painful swallowing. The key is to call your doctor if you experience prolonged symptoms.

Left untreated, odynophagia and its underlying cause can lead to further complications. Weight loss may also occur with odynophagia. You may eat less due to the discomforts associated with swallowing. This can lead to other health concerns, such as anemia, dehydration, and malnutrition. If you find this is the case, see your doctor right away.

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