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
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 your chance of 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 (ALS) , stroke, or other conditions
- History of heartburn (also called gastroesophageal reflux disease)
- History of lung disease
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:
- 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.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
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.
In severe cases, aspiration pneumonia can cause breathing problems. You may be placed on a mechanical ventilation to help with breathing.
To help reduce your chance of aspiration pneumonia:
- 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. Moderation is 2 drinks or less for men and 1 drink or less for women.
American Lung Association
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
Aspiration pneumonia. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116655/Aspiration-pneumonia. Updated August 10, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2016.
Marik PE. Aspiration pneumonitis and aspiration pneumonia. N Engl J Med. 2001;344(9):665-671.
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 February 2016 by David L. Horn, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.