Using thickened liquids for safer swallowing

Thickened liquids give you better control of the liquid in your mouth. They help slow down the flow rate of liquids, which lessens the chance of liquid going into your airway or “going down the wrong pipe.”

Liquids that go into your airway end up in your lungs. Liquids in your lungs can cause pneumonia or a lung infection.

Thickeners are widely available

You can find gels, powders, or natural thickening agents online or at your local pharmacy or medical supplier. Thickener brands include:

  • Thick & Easy
  • Thick-It
  • ThickenUp
  • Simply Thick
  • Thik & Clear

Liquids that may need thickening

Some liquids are naturally thicker, others will need a thickener to get to the consistency that's easiest for you to swallow. Both hot and cold drinks can be thickened.

You'll likely need to thicken:

  • Water
  • Milk
  • Fruit juice
  • Soft drinks
  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Commercial supplements, such as Ensure*

What does it taste like?

Most drinks can be thickened without changing the taste. The change in consistency, though, may take some getting used to.

There are different levels of thickness

Your health care team may have suggested a recommended thickness for adjusting thin liquids. Here is a standard range of thicknesses.

  • Thin liquids, such as water, coffee, or tea, run quickly through the prongs of a fork and leave little or no coating.
  • Nectar thick liquids, such as maple syrup or tomato juice, coat a fork and quickly sink through the prongs.
  • Honey thick liquids, the thickness of honey, coat a fork and slowly sink through the prongs.
  • Pudding thick liquids, the thickness of pudding, remain on a fork and hold together well.

Try making your own thickener

Soup broths and other flavored liquids can be thickened with household ingredients, such as:

  • Baby cereal
  • Instant potato flakes
  • Pureed baby food
  • Blended fruit
  • Corn flour

It's more complicated using one of these thickeners, since you have to experiment to get the desired thickness.

Some good thickener practices

  • Try not to use ice cubes. Melted ice can change the thickness of the liquid. Thickeners with xanthum gum, such as ThickenUp and Simply Thick can be used to make ice cubes. Thicken water to the needed thickness level, and freeze it in ice cube trays. Check the product’s food label to see if xanthan gum is a listed ingredient. 
  • If you are using powdered thickeners, add more thickener if the liquid is too thin. If the liquid is too thick, add more liquid until it is the needed thickness level. 
  • Be careful when using some powered thickeners. Some products keep getting thicker with time. Read label and instructions carefully. 
  • Do not eat gelatin dessert, ice cream, sherbet, and sorbet. These food items are thin liquids since they melt in your mouth. Eat thick custard as a substitute for ice cream. 
  • Broth-based soups are thin liquids. Broth can be thickened to the needed thickness using items, such as mashed potatoes, instant potato flakes, pureed vegetables, flour, or cream. 
  • Be sure to have your thickening supplies with you when you go out to eat or when on the go. You can get many thickening agents in single serving packets. 
  • Commercial supplements, such as Boost or Ensure, may change consistencies when they are chilled or at room temperature. Use the fork test to decide if thickener needs to be added to your drink. 
Last reviewed: 
January 2018

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