Swallowing disorders (dysphagia) have been recognized by the WHO as a medical disability associated with increased morbidity, mortality and costs of care. With increasing survival rates and ageing of the population, swallowing disorders and their role in causing pulmonary and nutritional pathologies are becoming exceedingly important. Over the past two decades, the study of oropharyngeal dysphagia has been approached from various disciplines with considerable progress in understanding its pathophysiology. This Review describes the most frequent manifestations of oropharyngeal dysphagia and the clinical as well as instrumental techniques that are available to diagnose patients with dysphagia. However, the clinical value of these diagnostic tests and their sensitivity to predict outcomes is limited. Despite considerable clinical research efforts, conventional diagnostic methods for oropharyngeal dysphagia have limited proven accuracy in predicting aspiration and respiratory disease. We contend that incorporation of measurable objective assessments into clinical diagnosis is needed and might be key in developing novel therapeutic strategies.