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Aspiration pneumonia

Definition

Pneumonia is inflammation (swelling) and infection of the lungs or large airways.

Aspiration pneumonia occurs when food or liquid is breathed into the airways or lungs, instead of being swallowed.

Alternative Names

Anaerobic pneumonia; Aspiration of vomitus; Necrotizing pneumonia; Aspiration pneumonitis

Causes

Risk factors for breathing in (aspiration) of foreign material into the lungs are:

  • Being less alert due to medicines, illness, surgery, or other reasons
  • Coma
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • Taking illicit drugs (such as opioids) which make you less alert
  • Receiving medicine to put you into a deep sleep for surgery (general anesthesia)
  • Old age
  • Poor gag reflex in people who are not alert (unconscious or semi-conscious) after a stroke or brain injury
  • Problems with swallowing
  • Eating or being fed when not upright

Being hospitalized can increase the risk for this condition.

Materials that may be breathed into the lungs include:

  • Saliva
  • Vomit
  • Liquids
  • Foods

The type of bacteria that causes the pneumonia depends on:

  • Your health
  • Where you live (at home or in a long-term nursing facility, for example)
  • Whether you were recently hospitalized
  • Your recent antibiotic use
  • Whether your immune system is weakened

Symptoms

Symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up foul-smelling, greenish or dark phlegm (sputum), or phlegm that contains pus or blood
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Breath odor
  • Excessive sweating
  • Problems swallowing
  • Confusion
  • Seeing food or tube feed material (if being fed artificially) in your sputum

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will use a stethoscope to listen for crackles or abnormal breath sounds in your chest. Tapping on your chest wall (percussion) helps the provider listen and feel for abnormal sounds in your chest.

If pneumonia is suspected, your provider will likely order a chest x-ray.

The following tests also may help diagnose this condition:

Treatment

Some people may need to be hospitalized. Treatment depends on how severe the pneumonia is and how ill the person is before the aspiration (chronic illness). Sometimes a ventilator (breathing machine) is needed to support breathing.

You will likely receive antibiotics.

You may need to have your swallowing function tested. People who have trouble swallowing may need to use other feeding methods to reduce the risk of aspiration.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Outcome depends on:

  • The health of the person before getting pneumonia
  • The type of bacteria causing the pneumonia
  • How much of the lungs are involved

More severe infections may result in long-term damage to the lungs.

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

  • Lung abscess
  • Shock
  • Spread of infection to the bloodstream (bacteremia)
  • Spread of infection to other areas of the body
  • Respiratory failure
  • Death

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Contact your provider, go to the emergency room, or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bluish discoloration of the lips or tongue (cyanosis)
  • Wheezing

Gallery

Pneumococci organism
This picture shows the organism Pneumococci. These bacteria are usually paired (diplococci) or appear in chains. Pneumococci are typically associated with pneumonia, but may cause infection in other organs such as the brain (pneumococcal meningitis) and blood stream (pneumococcal septicemia). (Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Upper airway test
An upper airway biopsy is obtained by using a flexible scope called a bronchoscope. The scope is passed down through the mouth and throat and a small piece of tissue is removed and sent to the laboratory. This test may be performed when an abnormality of the upper airway is suspected. It may also be performed as part of a bronchoscopy when abnormalities include the upper airway as well as the lung tissue.
Lungs
The major features of the lungs include the bronchi, the bronchioles and the alveoli. The alveoli are the microscopic blood vessel-lined sacks in which oxygen and carbon dioxide gas are exchanged.
Coronavirus
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses. Infection with these viruses can cause mild to moderate respiratory illnesses such as the common cold. Some coronaviruses may cause severe illness and lead to pneumonia or even death.

References

Baden LR, Griffin MR, Klompas M. Overview of pneumonia. In: Goldman L, Cooney KA, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 27th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2024:chap 85.

Shah RJ, Young VN. Aspiration. In: Broaddus VC, Ernst JD, King TE, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 43.

Last reviewed August 13, 2023 by Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Paul F. Harron, Jr. Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team..

Related specialties

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