Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. Aspiration pneumonia is an infection that develops after foreign items are accidentally inhaled into the lungs. This is a potentially serious condition that requires care from a doctor.
Food Inhaled Into the Lungs
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Only air should enter the airways of the lungs. Sometimes foods, liquids, or vomited stomach contents may accidentally get into these airways. Inhaling can move these substances further into the lungs. This is called aspiration. Once the substances are in the lungs, it will cause an irritation and swelling in the lungs. This creates an opportunity for an infection to develop.
Most people can prevent aspiration by creating a strong cough. However, some people may have impaired coughing ability. This may happen in people who are unconscious, have brain injuries, or have trouble swallowing foods or liquids.
Factors that may increase the chance of aspiration pneumonia:
Symptoms may include:
- Increased cough
- Increased sputum production
- Decreased energy
- Chest pain
- Change in mental status
- Trouble breathing
- Weight loss
If you experience any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to aspiration pneumonia. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. During the exam, your doctor will listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope.
Tests may include the following:
Your doctor may also need to take pictures of your lungs. This is done with a
chest x-ray. You may also be asked to do a special x-ray called a swallowing study,
Antibiotics are used to treat aspiration pneumonia. It may need to be delivered through an IV in a hospital. In other cases, antibiotics may be taken by mouth.
In severe cases,
may be needed to help with breathing.
To help reduce the chances of aspiration pneumonia:
- Follow your doctor’s instructions when fasting before any surgery. This will lower the chance of vomiting while you are unconscious.
- If you have a swallowing problem, talk to your doctor and speech therapist about ways to help prevent aspiration.
- If you drink alcohol, only drink in moderation. Moderation is 2 drinks or less a day for men and 1 drink or less a day for women.
Aspiration pneumonia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116655/Aspiration-pneumonia. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Aspiration pneumonitis and pneumonia. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pulmonary-disorders/pneumonia/aspiration-pneumonitis-and-pneumonia. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Reza Shariatzadeh M, Huang JQ, Marrie TJ. Differences in the features of aspiration pneumonia according to site of acquisition: Community or continuing care facility. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006;54(2):296-302.
Last reviewed March 2020 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 1/29/2021