Parkinson's Disease and Swallowing Problems

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on August 26, 2021
3 min read

Many people with Parkinson's disease have a hard time swallowing because they lose control of their mouth and throat muscles. As a result, chewing and managing solid foods can be difficult.

If you have Parkinson's disease, and it's hard for you to swallow, you have a higher chance of aspiration (inhaling fluid or stomach contents into the lungs) and pneumonia. For some, special swallowing techniques are enough to ease these problems. Others need to change their diet.

If you have Parkinson's disease and have trouble swallowing, talk with your doctor. They will refer you to a speech pathologist who can take a close look at how you swallow and figure out if aspiration could be a problem.

You may take a swallowing study, using foods and liquids of varying consistency while doctors monitor your swallowing with an X-ray.

The way you sit, the foods you eat, and how you eat can affect your ability to swallow. To use your posture to make chewing and swallowing easier, you can:

  • Sit upright at a 90-degree angle.
  • Tilt your head slightly forward.
  • Stay seated or standing for 15-20 minutes after you eat a meal.

When you eat:

  • Lessen distractions.
  • Stay focused on eating and drinking.
  • Don't talk with food in your mouth.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Cut your food into small pieces, and chew it thoroughly.
  • Don't try to eat more than 1/2 teaspoon at a time.
  • Keep in mind that you may need to swallow two or three times per bite or sip.
  • If food or liquid catches in your throat, cough gently or clear your throat, and swallow again before you take a breath. Do it over, if you need to.
  • Concentrate on swallowing frequently.

If you don't make enough saliva:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Every once in a while, suck on ice pops, ice chips, lemon ice, or lemon-flavored water to add to your saliva. That'll help you swallow more often.

If chewing is difficult or tiring:

  • Cut back on or stop eating foods you have to chew, and eat more soft things.
  • Puree your food in a blender.
  • If thin liquids make you cough, thicken them with a liquid thickener. (Your speech pathologist can recommend one.) You can also use thicker liquids instead of thin ones, like nectars instead of juices and cream soups instead of plain broths.

When you swallow less often, saliva can build up in your mouth. This can cause you to drool. If it's happening to you, talk with your doctor. They can suggest therapies or medicines that can help make things better.

In most cases, you can crush your pills and mix them with applesauce or pudding. But crushing some drugs, like Sinemet CR, can affect how the drugs work. There are some medications that should never be crushed. Ask your pharmacist which meds you can crush and which you can get as a liquid.