Aspiration pneumonia is an infection in the lungs that develops after foods, liquids, or stomach contents are accidentally inhaled.
Foods and liquids enter your mouth and travel down the esophagus into the stomach. Air enters your mouth or nose and goes down your airway (trachea) into your lungs. Lungs are only meant to be exposed to air. But foods, liquids, or vomited stomach contents may accidentally get into the airway and travel down to the lungs. This is called aspiration.
Generally, most people can cough to prevent foreign substances from being inhaled into the lungs. However, some people may not be able to protect their lungs with a good cough. This may happen when they are unconscious or if they have trouble swallowing foods or liquids. Once the foreign substances get into the lungs, they may cause an infection known as aspiration pneumonia. This is a potentially serious condition that requires care from your doctor.
The following factors increase your chances of developing aspiration pneumonia. In general, elderly people with a history of lung disease or a stroke, a need for feeding assistance, or poor dentition are at highest risk. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
If you experience any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to aspiration pneumonia. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If you experience any one of them, see your physician.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. During the exam, your doctor will listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Tests may include the following:
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
Antibiotics are used to treat aspiration pneumonia. Sometimes a person may need to go to the hospital to receive antibiotics directly into their veins through an IV (or intravenous catheter). In other cases, antibiotics taken by mouth may be used to treat the infection.
Some people may have trouble breathing due to aspiration pneumonia. In severe cases, a person may be placed on a machine to help with breathing.
If you are diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia, follow your doctor's instructions.
To help reduce your chances of getting aspiration pneumonia, take the following steps:
American Lung Association
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
Canadian Lung Association
Aspiration pneumonia. Dynamed website. Available at: http://www.dynamicmedical.com/dynamed.nsf?opendatabase . Accessed September 30, 2005.
Aspiration pneumonia. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. US Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000121.htm . Accessed September 30, 2005.
Beers MH, Berkow R. The Merck Manual . 17th ed. West Point, PA: Merck & Co;1999.
Last reviewed November 2008 by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, 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.
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