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Aspiration Pneumonia

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Updated November 29, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What It Is:

Aspiration pneumonia occurs when a foreign object such as fluid, vomit, or food is inhaled into the lungs and causes an infection.

Symptoms:

Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia have similarities to symptoms of other types of pneumonia but there are some differences as well. They may include:

  • Cough with foul smelling mucus, mucus that contains pus or blood or is greenish in color
  • Fever
  • Chest Pain
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Blue or gray color to skin due to lack of oxygen
  • Wheezing
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Foul smelling breath
  • Excessive sweating
  • Difficulty swallowing

Aspiration pneumonia often occurs in people who have other medical issues and may have difficulty talking or making others aware of their symptoms. If you care for someone who is at high risk for aspiration pneumonia, be aware of the symptoms so you can seek treatment if you suspect it.

Causes:

Aspiration pneumonia is caused by inhaling foreign materials into the lungs. This could include liquids, food or vomit. The foreign material causes inflammation in the airways and an infection in the lungs due to the presence of bacteria and other germs that should not be there.

Aspiration pneumonia is rare in healthy children and adults but is a serious concern for people in certain high risk groups.

This includes:

  • Anyone with difficulty swallowing
  • Older adults
  • People who drink alcohol heavily - one of the most frequent causes of aspiration pneumonia in otherwise healthy young people occurs when they have been binge drinking, vomit and then inhale the vomit while they are passed out
  • People with disorders of the esophagus
  • Coma
  • Those with a decreased level of alertness or mental state due to a stroke or brain injury
  • People under anesthesia
  • Those who are taking medication that lowers their alertness level

If you care for or are with anyone that meets any of these criteria, be aware of the symptoms of aspiration pneumonia and seek medical attention if you think it may be a possibility.

Treatment Options:

People who are diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia may need to be hospitalized, depending on the severity of the infection. Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and other tests to diagnose your illness. A chest x-ray and blood work are common, but other tests may be necessary as well.

If the pneumonia is bacterial, antibiotics may be prescribed. Breathing treatments are commonly prescribed to make breathing easier. The specific course of treatment will depend on what caused the infection, how advanced it is, the symptoms and your overall health.

Complications:

Complications of aspiration pneumonia can be serious and life-threatening. Many may depend on the health of the person who has it and the severity of the illness when it is diagnosed. Some of the possible complications include:

Prevention:

The best way to prevent aspiration pneumonia is to be aware of who is at risk for it and minimize those risks. People who have difficulty swallowing should be monitored while they eat or seek therapy to improve their ability to swallow effectively. Speech therapists that specialize in feeding can often help with swallowing difficulties.

Do not binge drink. Drinking so much that you pass out, black out or don't remember what happened the next day is a huge risk factor for aspiration pneumonia in young people.

Make sure that anyone who is at risk for aspiration pneumonia is evaluated frequently. The signs may be subtle in people with other medical problems.

If you suspect that you or someone you care for has aspiration pneumonia, seek medical attention right away.

Sources:

"Aspiration Pneumonia." MedlinePlus 23 Oct 12. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. 19 Nov 12.

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