Getting a Handle on Aspiration Pneumonia

Written by Elly Dock and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Aspiration pneumonia is an inflammation of your lungs and bronchial tubes. It happens after you inhale foreign matter. It is also known as anaerobic pneumonia.

This condition is caused by inhaling materials such as vomit, food, or liquid. This leads to a bacterial infection. The bacteria are different from those seen in more common types of pneumonia.

What Causes Aspiration Pneumonia?

Causes of this condition include:

  • esophageal disorders
  • ingesting large amounts of alcohol
  • coma
  • reduced levels of alertness
  • swallowing problems
  • anesthesia
  • aging
  • dental problems
  • sedatives

Inhaling acidic materials can cause severe injury to the lungs. This may not lead to a lung infection. However, it still requires medical attention and treatment.

Who Is At Risk For Aspiration Pneumonia?

The highest risk of this condition is seen in elderly individuals with a history of:

  • lung disease
  • seizures
  • stroke
  • dental problems
  • needing help eating

People with heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) also are at increased risk.

What Are The Symptoms Of Aspiration Pneumonia?

Symptoms of this condition are similar to other types of pneumonia. They include:

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

Contact your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. When you do, let your doctor know if you have recently inhaled any food or liquids.

A physical exam may also find additional symptoms, such as:

  • decreased flow of oxygen
  • rapid heart rate
  • crackling sound in the lungs

How Is Aspiration Pneumonia Diagnosed?

If you think you might have this condition, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Prompt treatment can make a big difference in your recovery.

To diagnose you, your doctor will run a series of tests. These may include:

  • sputum culture
  • complete blood count (CBC)
  • arterial blood gas
  • bronchoscopy
  • CT scan of chest area
  • swallowing tests
  • blood culture
  • chest X-ray

Your doctor may also need to test your ability to swallow.

How Is Aspiration Pneumonia Treated?

Your treatment will depend on the severity of your pneumonia. The first line of treatment will probably be antibiotics. Severe pneumonia may need to be treated in the hospital.

Choosing the right antibiotics can be difficult. The bacteria that cause this condition may be hard to identify. There are some things your doctor will need to know to identify the appropriate medication:

  • whether you were recently hospitalized
  • your overall health
  • if you have used antibiotics recently
  • where you live

People with trouble swallowing may need to stop taking food by mouth.

What Can Be Expected in the Long Term?

Many people who have this condition also have other diseases that affect swallowing. Diseases such as Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can affect recovery.

If treatment is acquired promptly, this condition rarely causes complications. Your overall prognosis depends on:

  • how much of your lungs have been affected
  • the severity of the pneumonia
  • the type of bacteria causing the infection

Without correct treatment, pneumonia can cause long term problems. Lung abscess and inflammatory problems may occur. Some people will develop acute respiratory failure. This could be fatal.

How Can Aspiration Pneumonia Be Prevented?

You can reduce your risk of this condition by:

  • avoiding behavior that leads to aspiration, such as excessive drinking
  • recognizing the risks of aspiration in certain situations
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