Odynophagia: Conditions That May Lead to Painful Swallowing

person researching odynophagia

Typically, when you have a sore throat, it's common to experience pain temporarily while swallowing. But what if you had to deal with this discomfort on a prolonged basis? As the Washington Manual of Medical Therapeutics explains, the technical term for pain while swallowing is odynophagia, and it can sometimes indicate that a more serious health condition is present.

What Conditions Can Cause Odynophagia?

There are a variety of conditions that can cause pain while swallowing, and you're probably familiar with the common ones, such as the common cold, strep throat and tonsillitis. While uncomfortable, most people's immune systems can conquer these ailments.

The following are some other possible causes of painful swallowing that you may be less familiar with:

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

    According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), this condition occurs when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus and causes a painful burning sensation in the chest, as well as pain when swallowing. This feeling is also known as heartburn or acid indigestion. If you see a physician for this condition, the NIDDK outlines that they will likely recommend that you eat smaller meals, as well as avoid greasy and spicy foods and alcohol. Over-the-counter medications, such as antacids, can also help to relieve symptoms.
  • Esophagitis

    As the Cleveland Clinic details, this disorder is an inflammation of the lining of the esophagus, which is the muscular tube that travels from the mouth to the stomach. Esophagitis can sometimes be caused by anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin. It can also result from vomiting or certain infections caused by viruses and bacteria. Avoiding foods that are spicy or acidic can help to limit discomfort, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The Cleveland Clinic also notes that a qualified specialist can use a special lighted tube to examine your esophagus and take a tissue sample if needed. Treatment often depends on the cause of this condition.
  • Candidiasis

    As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, this condition occurs when yeast causes an infection in the mouth, throat or esophagus. This condition is also known as thrush and commonly causes white patches and soreness in the mouth. Candidiasis is more common in people with dentures, HIV/AIDS and cancer, as well as babies. Healthcare providers can easily diagnose this condition by doing a physical examination and possibly sending a throat swab to a lab. Usually, your doctor would prescribe an antifungal medication for seven to 14 days to treat this infection.
  • Esophageal Cancer

    As an article published in ENTtoday explains, odynophagia is highly associated with cancer of the esophagus. Your medical professional can perform a procedure known as an endoscopy to examine the tissues of your esophagus and stomach with a special camera in order to look for any specific problems. If they find cancer, treatment can be started as soon as possible.

What's the Difference Between Odynophagia and Dysphagia?

Sometimes there can be a little confusion when using the medical terms odynophagia and dysphagia, since they both involve the same parts of the body. According to BMJ Best Practice, dysphagia is often described as difficulty when swallowing — whether it's difficulty getting the food or fluid transferred from the mouth to the esophagus or down the length of the esophagus. Dysphagia doesn't necessarily involve pain, whereas odynophagia does.

If you're experiencing any pain or discomfort in your throat, it's best to get a professional diagnosis. Your doctor or dental professional will be able to examine your symptoms and advise you on a treatment plan.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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Gum disease – if your home care routine of brushing and flossing has slipped and you have skipped your regular dental cleanings, bacterial plaque and tartar can build up on your teeth. The plaque and tartar, if left untreated, may eventually cause irreparable damage to your jawbone and support structures, and could lead to tooth loss.

Oral cancer – according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, men over the age of 40 have the greatest risk for oral cancer. About approximately 43,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer of the mouth, tongue or throat area, and the ACS estimates that about 7,000 people will die from these cancers. The use of tobacco products and alcohol increases the risk of oral cancer. Most oral cancers are first diagnosed by the dentist during a routine checkup.

Dental fillings break down – fillings have a life expectancy of eight to 10 years. However, they can last 20 years or longer. When the fillings in your mouth start to break down, food and bacteria can get underneath them and can cause decay deep in the tooth.