Aspiration Pneumonia: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is aspiration pneumonia?

Fast facts

  1. Aspiration pneumonia is a complication of pulmonary aspiration.
  2. Pulmonary aspiration is when you inhale food, stomach acid, or saliva into the lungs.
  3. Antibiotics are the first line treatment for aspiration pneumonia.

Aspiration pneumonia is a complication of pulmonary aspiration. Pulmonary aspiration is when you inhale food, stomach acid, or saliva into the lungs. You can also aspirate food that travels back up from your stomach to your esophagus.

All of these things may carry bacteria that affect your lungs. Healthy lungs can clear up on their own. If they don’t, pneumonia can develop as a complication.



What are the symptoms of aspiration pneumonia?

Someone with aspiration pneumonia may show symptoms of poor oral hygiene and throat clearing or wet coughing after eating. Other symptoms of this condition include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • fatigue
  • blue discoloration of the skin
  • cough, possibly with green sputum, blood, or a foul odor
  • difficulty swallowing
  • bad breath
  • excessive sweating

Anyone exhibiting these symptoms should contact their doctor. Let them know if you’ve recently inhaled any food or liquids. It’s especially critical that a child under 2 years of age, or an adult over the age of 65, get medical attention and a quick diagnosis.

Do not hesitate to go to the doctor if you are coughing up colored sputum or have a lingering fever over 102°F (38°C) in addition to the symptoms mentioned above.


What causes aspiration pneumonia?

Pneumonia from aspiration occurs when your defenses are impaired and the aspirated contents have a large amount of harmful bacteria. Impaired defenses and aspirated contents with a large amount of harmful bacteria can cause pneumonia.

A person can aspirate and develop pneumonia if their food or drink “goes down the wrong way.” This can occur even in someone with normal swallowing and gag reflex. Most of the time the person will be able to cough and prevent this. But people who have impaired coughing ability may not be able to. This impairment may be due to:

  • neurological disorders
  • throat cancer
  • medical conditions like myasthenia gravis or Parkinson’s disease
  • excessive use of alcohol or prescription or illegal drugs
  • use of sedatives or anesthesia
  • a weakened immune system
  • esophageal disorders
  • dental problems that interfere with chewing or swallowing

Risk factors

Who is at risk for aspiration pneumonia?

Risk factors for aspiration pneumonia include people with:


How is aspiration pneumonia diagnosed?

Your doctor will look for signs of pneumonia during a physical exam. They’ll hear a decreased flow of air, rapid heart rate, and a crackling sound in the lungs. Your doctor may also run a series of tests to confirm pneumonia. These may include:

Since pneumonia is a serious condition it requires treatment. You should have some of your test results within 24 hours. Blood and sputum cultures will take three to five days.



How is aspiration pneumonia treated?

Treatment depends on the severity of your pneumonia. Outcomes and duration of treatment depend on your general health, preexisting conditions, and hospital policies. Treating severe pneumonia may require hospitalization. People with trouble swallowing may need to stop taking food by mouth.

Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics for your condition. Make sure to take the antibiotics for the entire length of the prescription period. This period can vary from one to two weeks. Other things your doctor will ask before prescribing antibiotics:

  • Were you were recently hospitalized?
  • What is your overall health?
  • Have you used antibiotics recently?
  • Where do you live?

You may also need supportive care if aspiration pneumonia causes breathing problems. Treatment includes supplemental oxygen, steroids, or help from a breathing machine. Depending on the cause of chronic aspiration you may require surgery. For example, you may get surgery for a feeding tube if you have swallowing problems that don’t respond to treatment.



How can aspiration pneumonia be prevented?

Prevention tips
  • Avoid behaviors that can lead to aspiration, such as excessive drinking.
  • Be careful when taking medications that make you feel drowsy.
  • Receive proper dental care on a regular basis.

Your doctor may recommend a swallow evaluation by a licensed speech pathologist or swallow therapist. They can work with you on swallowing strategies and throat muscle strengthening. You may also need to change your diet.

Surgery risk: Follow your doctor’s orders about fasting to lower the chance of vomiting under anesthesia.



What can be expected in the long term?

Many people who have aspiration pneumonia also have other diseases that affect swallowing. This can result in a longer recovery period. Your outlook depends on:

  • how much of your lungs have been affected
  • the severity of the pneumonia
  • the type of bacteria causing the infection
  • any underlying medical condition that compromises your immune system or your ability to swallow

Pneumonia can cause long-term problems like a lung abscess or permanent scarring. Some people will develop acute respiratory failure, which can be fatal.



Aspiration pneumonia is a lung infection caused by inhaled oral or gastric contents. It can become serious if left untreated. Treatment involves antibiotics and supportive care for breathing.

Contact a doctor immediately if you notice any symptoms of pneumonia, especially in an older adult or infant. To diagnose aspiration pneumonia, your doctor will order tests to look at your lung health and your ability to swallow.

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