Everything you need to know about aspiration pneumonia

Aspiration pneumonia is a form of pneumonia that may occur when a person breathes something in, rather than swallowing it. Germs from food particles, saliva, vomit, or other substances that infect the airways and cause pneumonia in the aspiration phase.

Learn about the causes and risk factors of aspiration pneumonia, and how doctors treat the disease, in this report.

We also cover complications and diagnosis, including whether a person can die from the infection.

What is aspiration pneumonia?

Germs in the lungs cause aspiration pneumonia. Image credit: Melvil, (2017, November 13).
Germs in the lungs cause aspiration pneumonia. Image credit: Melvil, (2017, November 13).

Pneumonia is an infection caused by germs that get into the airways and lungs.

Those germs get into the lungs in aspiration pneumonia because a person accidentally breathes something in instead of swallowing it.

Healthy lungs will typically manage such events with the bacteria, and get rid of as much of it as possible by causing a person to cough.

Those with coughing issues are either sick or who have weakened their immune systems are more vulnerable to aspiration pneumonia.

Aspiration pneumonia is most common in older people and younger kids but it can affect anyone.

Can you die from aspiration pneumonia?

Aspiration pneumonia can lead to death so doctors must treat the condition as soon as possible.

Doctors must give careful attention to the care of each person to ensure that they are getting the right antibiotic.

If the person has gone too long without treatment or has a weakened immune system, life-threatening complications may occur.

Causes and risk factors

Aspiration pneumonia also happens when a person has a weakened immune system and is inhaling an item that contains several germs.

In certain situations, the person will spontaneously cough which will remove these unwanted particles and prevent the development of aspiration pneumonia.

People with an impaired ability to cough may be more likely to develop an infection by inhaling something, especially if the object was large or a source of infectious germs.

Some risk factors for pneumonia by aspiration include:

  • esophageal disorders or dysfunction
  • using muscle relaxers, sedatives, or anesthesia
  • using or abusing alcohol or drugs
  • dental problems
  • problems with the nerves (neurological disorders)
  • throat cancer
  • stroke
  • seizure
  • heart attack
  • coma
  • gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn
  • disorders that impair the mental state, such as dementia

Depending on several variables, the form of germs that invade the lungs or large airways can also vary but they are usually Streptococcus pneumonia, Staphylococcus aureus, or gram-negative infectious bacteria.

Symptoms

A high fever lady
A high fever and difficulty breathing may indicate aspiration pneumonia.

Aspirational pneumonia can lead to a number of symptoms including:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • fatigue
  • chest pain
  • wheezing
  • slightly blue skin
  • high fever
  • sweating

Someone with these symptoms will immediately contact their doctor for a prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Signs like colorful phlegm and high fever in kids or older adults warrant a ride to urgent care.

Diagnosis

Physicians should be working as soon as possible to diagnose and treat aspiration pneumonia. Usually, physicians will inquire about symptoms and then do a physical examination to test for signs of pneumonia.

Signs may involve a crackling noise in the lungs as the person breathes or a person has trouble breathing.

X-rays or computed tomography ( CT) scans can give lung images. A bronchoscope can also be used by physicians to look at airways and test for any blockages.

A sputum culture test, complete blood count (CBC) test, or arterial blood gas test will help gage how serious the infection is and what kind of treatment is needed.

Treatment

Aspiration pneumonia treatment can vary significantly depending on the general health of the patient and the extent of the symptoms thereof.

Antibiotics are widely used to help clear the infection and prevent severe complications. Doctors may have to wait until test results return to determine which antibiotics to prescribe, as certain bacteria are resistant to certain antibiotics.

Some people can need to be taken into hospital and monitored. When a person has trouble breathing, they can need to use a respirator.

Unless the person has difficulty swallowing, physicians can prescribe an assisted feeding method or a change in eating habits to prevent further aspiration.

Complications

A female doctor with her patient
Seeing a doctor as soon as possible may prevent complications.

Aspiration pneumonia can cause serious complications, especially if an individual is waiting too long to go to the doctor.

The infection can swiftly progress and spread to other areas of the body. It may also spread into the particularly dangerous bloodstream.

They can form pockets or abscesses in the lungs. Pneumonia may be causing shock or respiratory failure in some cases.

Diseases that affect swallowing or cause further inflammation may aggravate or prevent aspiration pneumonia from properly curing it.

Some severe infections can cause long-term damage and scarring to the lungs and main airways.

Prevention

Aspiration pneumonia is not always preventable, but some choices in lifestyle may help to reduce the risk.

Drinking excessive alcohol or using illegal drugs raises the risk of aspiration pneumonia, as a person may be too intoxicated to properly swallow.

Prescription drugs that affect the muscles or make an individual excessively drowsy can also increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia.

Anyone who thinks their food is constantly going down the wrong pipe while taking prescription drugs should speak to their doctor about changing the dose or swapping drugs to stop breathing in foreign particles.

Other tips for avoiding aspiration pneumonia include:

  • practicing good dental and oral hygiene
  • not smoking
  • sitting up while eating and chewing slowly and deliberately

Outlook

The outlook for people with aspiration pneumonia depends on a few important factors, such as how soon the person with their symptoms went to the doctor, how far the symptoms progressed, and their general health before pneumonia.

In a person’s recovery, the form of substance inhaled and the strain of bacterial infection may also play a part.

Aspiration pneumonia seems to be more serious than the normal pneumonic type. In one study , researchers noted that people with aspirational pneumonia were much more likely than people with community-acquired pneumonia to go to a hospital, stay in intensive care or pass away from the disease.

That said, most people survive aspiration pneumonia but it may take some time for complete recovery.

Doctors should track elderly people or others with weakened immune systems closely to avoid life-threatening complications.

Following a doctor’s care plan is key to give the body the best chance of recovery. If a doctor advises you otherwise, always full a complete course of antibiotic treatment, even if the symptoms go away early on.

Changes in lifestyle, such as improving oral hygiene and discontinuing drugs or alcohol, can also help avoid aspirational pneumonia.

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