Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing. Thickened liquids are often used in the management of dysphagia to improve bolus control and to help prevent aspiration. A range of starches and gums has historically been used to thicken liquids. Although thickened liquids improve swallow safety, they appear to have a great potential for unintended physiological consequences. Initial concerns were raised about the impact of thickeners on water binding due to the high prevalence of dehydration amongst individuals with dysphagia. Thankfully, regardless of thickening agent, thickeners do not affect water bioavailability. This effect holds true even for extremely thick fluids. However, bioavailability of medication is impaired with viscous substances. Liquids thickened to as little as 150 mPa.s retards drug release. In addition, feelings of satiety and thirst increase with increasingly viscous fluids. Flavour deteriorates with increasing thickness regardless of thickening agent. Therapeutically clinicians often prescribe small volumes of thickened liquids, consumed often. Yet small volumes of thick substances consumed with a long oral processing time, which is common for individuals with dysphagia, reduces the amount consumed. A combination of poor flavour, and increasing feelings of fullness result in little motivation and poor physiologic drive to consume thickened liquids.This review provides evidence from the dysphagia, pharmaceutical and food technology literature to show unintended side effects of thickened liquids that contribute to dehydration and potential sub-theraputic medication levels for individuals with dysphagia. The physical property of viscosity rather than a particular thickening agent appears to be key. Provision of “spoon-thick” or “extremely thick liquids” is particularly likely to contribute to dehydration and poor bioavailability of solid dose medication. Clinicians are encouraged to prescribe the minimal level of thickness needed for swallowing safety. Consultation with pharmacy and dietetic staff is essential for optimum management of individuals with dysphagia. Given the aged population forecasts for the year 2050, improved dysphagia management should be a high priority.
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