Definition

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 your doctor.

Food Inhaled into Lung

lung aspiration food

Food has entered air sacs of the lung causing a build up of green mucus and decreasing the flow of oxygen—blue arrows.

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Causes

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.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of getting aspiration pneumonia include:

    
  • Decreased level of consciousness due to alcohol intake, seizures , stroke , or other conditions
  • Impaired swallowing function due to poor dentition or a history of Parkinson’s disease , amyotrophic lateral sclerosis , stroke, or other conditions
  • History of heartburn (also called gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • History of lung disease
  • Symptoms

    Symptoms may include:

        
  • Increased cough
  • Increased sputum production
  • Fever
  • 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.

    Diagnosis

    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:

        
  • Blood tests
  • Sputum test
  • 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 use a barium swallow during your x-ray. This will help demonstrate swallowing problems.

    Treatment

    Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:

    Antibiotics

    Antibiotics are used to treat aspiration pneumonia. In some cases, you may need to go to the hospital to receive antibiotics directly into the veins through an IV. In other cases, antibiotics may be taken by mouth.

    Breathing Assistance

    In severe cases, aspiration pneumonia can cause breathing problems. You may be placed on a machine to help with breathing.

    Prevention

    To help reduce your chance of getting aspiration pneumonia, take these steps:

        
  • Follow your doctor’s orders 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 specialist about ways to help prevent aspiration.
  • If you drink alcohol, only drink in moderation.