Swallowing problems and aspiration

If breathing timing is even slightly changed during swallowing, the airway may not be fully closed and food or fluid may be breathed into the lungs. This is called aspiration and may lead to chest infections or pneumonia.

Normally, when food or fluid ‘goes down the wrong way’ (aspirated), you automatically cough up the food or drink. As people who have COPD often have a weakened cough reflex, they may not be able to clear all the food or fluid out of their breathing tubes or airways.

Aspiration is a symptom of swallowing problems. The extent of the swallowing problems can change over time and may depend on how bad your breathing problems are at the time (and other medical factors).

As many as 20% to 40% of people who have COPD, experience aspiration (particularly during a flare up). Swallowing problems are often under diagnosed in people who have COPD because silent aspiration can be difficult to detect.

Swallowing problems and nutrition

As you are using more energy to maintain your breathing during chewing and swallowing, eating and drinking can become more tiring. As a result, you may take longer to complete your meals and you may eat and drink less. Eating and drinking less could cause you to miss out on important nutrients and lose weight.