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Could COVID-19 keep you from enjoying your favorite foods?

Published: Jul. 20, 2020 at 6:22 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Doctors at Augusta University are studying something that seems so simple but could be hugely impacted by the coronavirus: swallowing food.

And a local doctor says everyone needs to know the warning signs before it's too late.

Dysphagia, or the medical term for someone who struggles to swallow when they're eating or drinking, affects about 590 million people worldwide. One local expert says coronavirus will likely only make this much worse.

The simple act of drinking, cooking something or eating is a pretty complicated process. It turns out our ability to swallow anything happens in three separate phases: from the mouth, bypassing the vocal cords to the esophagus, and finally the stomach, kind of like a relay race.

Dr. Greg Postma is the Vice-chair of the Department of Otolaryngology and director of the Center for Voice, Airway and Swallowing Disorders. He says any drop of that relay baton is known medically as dysphagia.

“People ignore it like people ignore a lot of other medical problems and so they let things progress,” Postma said. “The problem with letting swallowing disorders progress is people can become progressively weaker. They lose weight, they lose muscle bulk, they can get aspiration, pneumonia.

He says people need to know, and not ignore these warning signs.

Symptoms of dysphagia include:

  • Trouble with liquids, particularly coughing.
  • Taking longer to eat
  • Changing your diet
  • And losing weight.

“If you intervene early you can do pretty well with people,” Postma said. “Sometimes our therapies don’t work very well if people have taken longer to come see us.”

Researchers and doctors at AU tell the I-TEAM that this disorder costs the U.S. healthcare system more than $500 million dollars every year -- a number they believe will only get worse due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“30-40-50 percent of people in nursing homes have trouble eating before this and so it’s going to become a larger problem,” Postma said.

That's because many people affected by COVID-19 are older. And another issue -- anyone put on a ventilator, no matter their age, could later develop dysphagia.

“When you get older, these are the people that are going to have real trouble recovering. Particularly if they spend more time in our ICUs,” Postma said.

“What is the effect of intubation? Especially somebody that is older?” Meredith Anderson, I-TEAM reporter asked.

“In general, very little,” Postma said.

“Even though it’s a very safe procedure, it can damage, mechanically damage the voice box in the throat, it can mechanically damage the top part of the windpipe and having breathing trouble afterward,” he added.

And you guessed it -- that can lead to trouble with swallowing later in people most severely impacted by COVID-19. Dr. Postma says the less time someone spends on a ventilator, the better their odds are.

If a patient is on a ventilator longer than about six to nine days, many hospitals put a trach in the patient's throat, to help save their voice box and esophagus from long term affects.

Dr. Postma worries with a huge influx of ventilated patients and patients with traches, muscles could atrophy -- or waste away.

He’s hoping to raise awareness so patients get help for this now, before COVID-19 steps in and could make it worse.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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