A Western Australian research team has recently discovered a link between respiratory illness and difficulties swallowing in young people with cerebral palsy (CP), the world’s most common childhood disability, according to researchers.

The researchers surveyed 551 young people with CP (self-reporting or caregiver-reporting), focusing on children and young adults with CP at risk of being hospitalized or losing their lives, not as a direct result of CP but due to developing respiratory diseases such as pneumonia.

Questions were asked about their respiratory symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing, and about other conditions they had like scoliosis and epilepsy.

“The main finding of our research is that children and young people with CP who have difficulty swallowing are at risk of developing a serious respiratory illness that can result in hospitalization and even death,” said lead researcher Marie Blackmore.

Symptoms may present as a cough, wheeze, sneeze, choke or gurgled speech during meals because some of the food may be going into their airways, researchers said. “We think that gradually, over time, this creates an environment in the lungs that makes people with cerebral palsy susceptible to infections,” Dr Blackmore said.