Swallowing and Breathing with COPD

By Speech-Language Pathologist Jodi Knight, MS, CCC-SLP

 Fact: it’s impossible to breathe and swallow at the same time. Please don’t even try. Unlike, chewing gum and walking, for example, breathing and swallowing share a common body part – the throat. While it does require finely tuned coordination to swallow in one moment and breathe the next, it is physically impossible to do both at once.

Since breathing and swallowing are closely related, it’s no surprise, unfortunately, that people with breathing difficulty may also have a hard time swallowing. Especially if you’re one of the 15 million people in the U.S. who have trouble breathing due to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). In that case, accidentally inhaling food or liquids can become a serious issue with risky side-effects.

What you need to know about COPD

 COPD is a lung disease caused by exposure to tobacco smoke, pollution, fumes, dust, and toxins inhaled throughout your lifetime. This causes ongoing irritation in your airway, which leads to shortness of breath that gets worse as the disease damages lung tissue. The shortness of breath then causes swallowing problems.

Besides swallowing disorders, COPD can also cause changes in voice and difficulty talking. Difficulty from COPD causes 1.5 million emergency room visits each year. Unknown swallowing problems is one common reason people with COPD visit the doctor or get admitted to the hospital. If we can help you with swallowing, we can help you live better with COPD.

Swallowing, Breathing, and COPD

 It takes many muscles working together to make sure you swallow at the right time (and aren’t breathing at the same time). People with COPD often have trouble with this timing and may have a hard time coughing and clearing their airway. As many as 20%-40% of people with COPD experience aspiration, or breathing foods/liquids into the lungs, especially during flare-ups.

Breathing food and liquid into your lungs causes infection, including pneumonia and aspiration pneumonia. Pneumonia can cause increased mucus production, shortness of breath, fever, decreased oxygen levels, confusion and respiratory failure.


 Luckily, there is an answer to preventing swallowing/breathing problems caused by COPD. Speech therapy can help people with COPD before you start having breathing and problems that lead to pneumonia or infections. A Speech Therapist, like Southwest Health’s Jodi Knight, MS, CCC-SLP, checks your breathing and swallowing. Then she makes a plan to help you breathe and swallow well, improving the timing, which will reduce your risk of aspiration pneumonia.Call your physician today to see if swallowing therapy could help you improve your quality of life.

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