Is a Fear of Swallowing Common?

Henry Gaudet

Phagophobia, or a fear of swallowing, causes acute anxiety in sufferers when they are eating or taking oral medications. Experts state that cases involving a fear of swallowing have been under-reported. Many people are reluctant to discuss their phobia because of shame or embarrassment, and they are surprised to learn that phagophobia is relatively common. Often, the signs of phagophobia are misinterpreted, and the fear is misdiagnosed as an eating disorder.

Someone who has a fear of swallowing may not be able to sleep at night.
Someone who has a fear of swallowing may not be able to sleep at night.

Sufferers of phagophobia experience difficulty eating and often are reluctant to eat, especially in public. Depending on the severity of the fear, patients might display typical signs of acute anxiety such as elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, dry mouth or nausea when attempting to eat. Severe cases can cause gagging and vomiting, a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy that continues to feed the phobia.

An incident of choking may cause someone to develop a fear of swallowing.
An incident of choking may cause someone to develop a fear of swallowing.

Phagophobiacs are likely to be underweight and malnourished. Many confuse a fear of swallowing with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Family, friends and even the sufferers might believe an eating disorder to be responsible. Phagophobiacs do not, however, suffer from the anorexic’s distorted body image and do not choose to under-eat. In these cases, malnutrition is a result of fear, not design.

Someone who has a fear of swallowing may develop a habit of frequent vomiting.
Someone who has a fear of swallowing may develop a habit of frequent vomiting.

Often, a traumatic incident is responsible for the fear of swallowing. Sufferers often can trace their anxieties to a single event, often a case of choking or vomiting. Many of these events happen during childhood, although adult experiences and traumas also can trigger a fear of swallowing. Fear of swallowing usually is rooted in a fear of repeating this incident.

Many people with a fear of swallowing decline to talk about it out of shame.
Many people with a fear of swallowing decline to talk about it out of shame.

People who are more anxious by nature are more vulnerable to phobias such as phagophobia. Fear of swallowing also can result from cases involving childhood abuse and intimidation. Force-feeding or parental anxiety about food issues also can contribute to this phobia.

Phagophobiacs are likely to be underweight.
Phagophobiacs are likely to be underweight.

Fears such as phagophobia can be managed, treated and, in some cases, even cured. Without a proper diagnosis, however, treatment cannot begin, and the condition is unlikely to improve. Individuals suffering from these or similar symptoms should consult with a medical professional to identify the condition and receive the best advice for treatment.

Sufferers of phagophobia may experience difficulty eating.
Sufferers of phagophobia may experience difficulty eating.

Physical therapy, psychological therapy and medication might be used to help treat phagophobia. Some sufferers find success with self-help exercises to reduce anxiety to manageable levels during mealtimes. Breathing and visualization techniques can help to calm these individuals.

Fear of swallowing can prevent a person from taking proper medication.
Fear of swallowing can prevent a person from taking proper medication.

Simple props also can be beneficial. For instance, water can be used to wash down food. With this aid in place, the individual might experience reduced levels of anxiety, and in some cases will be able to eat without incident. In some cases, however, the aid becomes a crutch, and the sufferer can become overly reliant on it. Consultation with a professional is recommended for anyone dealing with a severe phobia.

Children who have previous choked on a foreign object or food may become fearful of swallowing.
Children who have previous choked on a foreign object or food may become fearful of swallowing.

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Discussion Comments

Ana1234

@MrsPramm - I can definitely understand this kind of fear. I don't have an extreme version of it but I will freak out a little bit if I have to swallow a large pill and sometimes it's bad enough that I'll try to break the pill in half to swallow it, even though you aren't supposed to do that.

Ironically, it probably makes it more dangerous to eat because I know my throat seizes up with fear when I go to swallow, but it's very difficult to control when it's happening. If it was any worse than it is right now, I would definitely go to see a doctor or a therapist about swallowing therapy, and I would recommend that other people do this as well if they need to.

MrsPramm

@croydon - It's easy to say that and you might have good intentions, but in reality people will almost always feel better if they know they aren't the only one with a particular condition. It's scary to suffer from something that you don't understand. If other people have it as well, that means it must be understandable.

And swallowing problems aren't really mild. If the fear is intense enough it can ruin a person's entire life and can make them sick.

My advice would be to do whatever it takes to make sure that you are going to be well again. If you need therapy, then do that. It's nothing to be ashamed of, and it's not a problem that you somehow deserve. Everyone deserves to be able to eat.

croydon

Honestly, if you are struggling with a fear like this it shouldn't matter whether it is common or not. It is what you have to deal with and just because other people have the same thing doesn't really make it any easier.

Don't be hard on yourself and don't worry about whether this makes you strange or anything like that. Everyone is different and everyone has weird things to deal with. A problem swallowing is fairly mild compared with other problems.

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