Are Thickeners a Good Way to Keep Someone With Swallowing Problems From Choking?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Are thickeners a good way to keep someone with swallowing problems from choking?

Expert Answer

It's worth a try. Most experts believe that thickening liquids makes it easier for liquids to go down the throat without causing choking. Also, people with swallowing problems, otherwise known as dysphagia, can breathe small particles into their lungs when swallowing thin liquids, sometimes even without being aware of it.

Often doctors suggest using a commercial thickener; there are many different brands on the market. The thickeners available come in a variety of textures and flavors, so experiment to see which one your family member likes best.

However, store-bought thickeners aren't necessary to thicken foods; there are lots of other simple ways to do this, using ingredients you can buy at the grocery store. Mashed potatoes, potato flakes, rice cereal, tapioca, plain gelatin, and Jell-O all work to thicken different foods. You might try using rice cereal, mashed potatoes, and unflavored gelatin for main dishes and vegetables, and tapioca or Jell-O for desserts.

Be aware, though, that in recent years some experts have questioned whether thickening foods is the best approach, because it can cause some people to feel full faster and eat less. And some studies have found that thickened foods are more easily aspirated than regular foods. If you notice that the person you're caring for is losing appetite, losing weight, or feeling full too quickly, talk to the doctor; thickening food might not be the best approach. Also, if you notice more instances of choking or aspiration with thickened foods, stop using thickener -- commercial or otherwise -- and talk to the doctor.