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Guillain-Barre and Swallowing Difficulties

Many patients with GBS experience difficulty swallowing because the nerves that control the muscles for swallowing become affected by the syndrome.

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) can be a dangerous condition, especially when a patient’s immune system is compromised (such as in GBS). In a normal swallow, the saliva, food, and liquid we swallow goes from our mouth, into our throat, and then into our esophagus, avoiding our airway (larynx and trachea). Typically, when saliva, food, or liquid enters the airway, our cough reflex makes us cough to protect our airways. The concern with patients with dysphagia associated with GBS, however, is that the saliva, food, or liquid enters the airway and the patient may not be able to remove it appropriately (they may not feel it or may not have enough strength or awareness to cough it up). In medical terms, we call it “aspiration” when saliva, food, or liquid enters the airway.

Respiratory muscle weakness (poor cough strength and poor respiratory reserve) is one of the most concerning feature of GBS as the patient may not be able to protect their airway, increasing the risk of aspiration and choking.

In severe cases of GBS, a patient may need artificial nutrition for a short or longer period depending on the severity and stage of the syndrome.