Possible swallowing problems during and after radiotherapy to the head and neck

  • Reference Number: HEY-356/2015
  • Departments: Speech and Language


This leaflet has been produced to give you general information about how radiotherapy and chemotherapy to the head and neck may affect your swallowing.  Most of your questions should be answered by this leaflet.  It is not intended to replace the discussion between you and your Speech and Language Therapist (SLT), but may act as a starting point for discussion.   If after reading it you have any concerns or require further explanation, please discuss this with your SLT.

Why do swallowing problems occur?

Radiation destroys fast multiplying cells like tumour cells. However, you also have fast multiplying cells in your mouth and throat which means that they can also be damaged.  Swallowing problems can occur because the damaged cells cannot be replaced quickly enough, leading to a sore, dry mouth and throat.

Each person is different. The nature and severity of swallowing problems will be determined by which part of the head or neck is being treated.  In addition, symptoms may be worse if you are also having chemotherapy.

When do swallowing problems occur?

Difficulties swallowing often start in the first 2 – 3 weeks during treatment and may persist a few weeks or months. If you are also having chemotherapy, swallowing difficulties may persist for several months after you finish your treatment.

What foods may be easier to manage?

People undergoing radiotherapy treatment often find that a soft, smooth diet is easier to manage. Foods that may irritate a sore mouth and throat are:

  • Dry food e.g. biscuits, crisps, nuts
  • Spicy food
  • Very hot or very cold food and drink
  • Acidic food
  • Alcohol and spirits

Dietary advice

It is very important to make sure you are having enough to eat and drink during your treatment. If you are having swallowing problems you may not be eating enough.  You may therefore need to see a dietitian who can advise you on how to increase your calorie intake.


There are different medicines you can take to help with pain and soreness in your mouth and throat. Some medications can also be provided in syrup or dispersible forms.  You can find out about these by speaking to your doctor.

Should you require any further advice on the issues contained in this leaflet, please do not hesitate to contact the Speech and Language Therapy Department on telephone number: (01482) 604331



General Advice and Consent

Most of your questions should have been answered by this leaflet, but remember that this is only a starting point for discussion with the healthcare team.

Consent to treatment

Before any doctor, nurse or therapist examines or treats you, they must seek your consent or permission. In order to make a decision, you need to have information from health professionals about the treatment or investigation which is being offered to you. You should always ask them more questions if you do not understand or if you want more information.

The information you receive should be about your condition, the alternatives available to you, and whether it carries risks as well as the benefits. What is important is that your consent is genuine or valid. That means:

  • you must be able to give your consent
  • you must be given enough information to enable you to make a decision
  • you must be acting under your own free will and not under the strong influence of another person

Information about you

We collect and use your information to provide you with care and treatment. As part of your care, information about you will be shared between members of a healthcare team, some of whom you may not meet. Your information may also be used to help train staff, to check the quality of our care, to manage and plan the health service, and to help with research. Wherever possible we use anonymous data.

We may pass on relevant information to other health organisations that provide you with care. All information is treated as strictly confidential and is not given to anyone who does not need it. If you have any concerns please ask your doctor, or the person caring for you.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018 we are responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of any information we hold about you. For further information visit the following page: Confidential Information about You.

If you or your carer needs information about your health and wellbeing and about your care and treatment in a different format, such as large print, braille or audio, due to disability, impairment or sensory loss, please advise a member of staff and this can be arranged.