How to Thicken Liquids for a Medical Diet (2024)


ByKristin Hayes, RN

Updated on July 06, 2022

Medically reviewed byBenjamin F. Asher, MD

Thickened liquids are a medical dietary adjustment that thickens the consistency of fluids in order to prevent choking. Thickened liquids are recommended for individuals who have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) and keeping food or liquid from entering their airway. You may need to have thickened liquids for dysphagia if you have a neurological condition such as a stroke, a weakening of the muscles or nerves of the esophagus, or from an obstruction (blockage) in the throat.

How to Thicken Liquids for a Medical Diet (1)


  • Thin or low viscosity liquids such as regular water pose the greatest risk for choking and aspiration to individuals with dysphagia. In order to prevent aspiration in at-risk people, additives can increase the viscosity (thickness) of a fluid. In addition to water, examples of thin liquids include soda, coffee, juice, and soup broth. An example of a naturally thicker liquid (higher viscosity) would be buttermilk. The amount a fluid that should be thickened is usually determined by the severity of dysphagia.
  • Nectar-like or mildly thickened liquids have a consistency that will still run off a spoon. However, the fluid has enough consistency that a light film will remain on the spoon’s surface.
  • Honey-like or moderately thickened liquid will no longer flow freely off the spoon. Instead, honey-like liquids will drip off the tip of the spoon.
  • Spoon-thick or extremely thickened liquid will no longer drip off the spoon. Spoon thick liquids are more solid and will remain on the spoon when the spoon is tipped. This is more like the consistency of pudding.

Types of Thickeners Available

There are now a variety of thickening products available commercially. You can buy pre-thickened drinks or thickening products that you mix yourself. Thickeners come in starch-based and gum-based varieties; each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Despite some controversy over whether or not hydration is affected by using thickeners, studies in both rats and humans have shown that there is a 95% absorption of the liquid with the use of commercial thickeners. Seeking help from a speech-language pathologist or a nutritionist on how to properly thicken fluids can be helpful.

Starch-based thickeners are easier to mix; however, they are best consumed immediately after mixing. The longer a starch-based thickener sits, the thicker the consistency will become. If the liquid is then refrigerated, the liquid may become too thick. Commercial products include:

  • Thicken Up
  • Thick-It

Gum-based thickeners require more care to mix as they tend to clump more and must be mixed well to avoid inconsistent fluid thickness. If the liquid is not mixed properly, you could accidentally increase the risk of choking rather than decrease it. One advantage of gum-based thickeners is that once mixed, the consistency remains stable and can be refrigerated. Commercial products include:

  • SimplyThick
  • AquaCareH2O
  • Thik & Clear

How to Know If You Need Thickened Liquids

If your healthcare provider has concerns that you have dysphagia, he or she will likely recommend that you be evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. He or she will be able to perform the necessary testing to determine whether you are at risk for aspiration and choking. Speech-language pathologists often perform an evaluation in which they will ask you questions, look at your facial and oral structure and watch you eat. If further testing is necessary, a modified barium swallow (MBS) study or fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES) may be ordered. Based on the results of these tests your practitioner may recommend thickened liquids.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is thick water?

    Thick or thickened water is water designed for people with difficulty swallowing, a medical condition known as dysphagia. Thick water contains an odorless, flavorless thickener, such as xanthan gum, which gives the water a thicker consistency.

  • Why would someone need to drink thickened liquids?

    People with dysphagia need to drink thickened liquids to prevent choking. Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, can be caused by a neurological condition, such as a stroke, weak esophageal muscles, or an obstruction.

  • What are the ingredients of Thick-It?

    Thick-It is a food and beverage thickener that comes in two formulations: Thick-It Original and Thick-It Clear Advantage.

    Thick-It Original contains modified corn starch. Thick-It Clear Advantage contains xanthan gum, maltodextrin, and ascorbic acid.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Cichero JA. Thickening agents used for dysphagia management: effect on bioavailability of water, medication and feelings of satiety.Nutr J. 2013;12:54. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-54

  2. Badenduck LA, Matthews TW, McDonough A, et al. Fiber-optic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing to assess swallowing outcomes as a function of head position in a normal population.J Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2014;43(1):9. doi:10.1186/1916-0216-43-9

Additional Reading

  • Garcia JM, Chambers E. Managing dysphagia through diet modifications. Am J Nurs. 2010;110(11):26-33. doi:10.1097/01.NAJ.0000390519.83887.02

  • Intermountain Healthcare. (2014). Dysphagia.

  • Mills, R. H. (2008, October 14). Dysphagia Management: Using Thickened Liquids. The ASHA Leader.

  • Speech Pathology Australia. Australian Standards for Texture Modified Foods and Fluids.

How to Thicken Liquids for a Medical Diet (2)

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.

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