Aspiration Pneumonia: What You Should Know

Identifying and Treating Aspiration Pneumonia

Doctor listening to patient's chest with stethoscope
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Aspiration happens when a foreign object is inhaled, such as a piece of food, gum, liquid or vomit. The object then becomes lodged in one or both lungs, where it is trapped unless the patient is able to cough it up.  

An individual with a weak cough may not be able to cough up a foreign body, and many people never realize that a piece of food has "gone down the wrong pipe".

 This problem is more common in the elderly, who are more likely to have problems with swallowing.  An individual in the hospital may be labeled an "aspiration risk" because they are known to have a decreased ability to swallow correctly.  These individuals may have an ongoing condition where they accidentally swallow food into their lungs instead of into the esophagus, the tube that takes food to the stomach.  

Patients are asked not to eat or drink prior to surgery to prevent aspiration while under anesthesia.  


Pneumonia is an infection that occurs in the lungs and is commonly caused by the presence of bacteria. There are multiple types of pneumonia. In some cases, a particle of food is aspirated into the lungs, where it can cause serious problems and increases the presence of bacteria as the food begins to essentially rot in the lung.  

In some cases, the patient is aware that the piece of food is present, and it may be removed with a procedure called a bronchoscopy.

 For example, a piece of steak that was accidentally inhaled could be retrieved during the procedures with a pair of pincers that are used for this purpose. Aspiration of something soft, such as applesauce, would be much more difficult to remove. Even with suction, it would be nearly impossible to remove all of the applesauce.

Aspiration pneumonia, or the collection of infectious material in the lungs due to the presence of a foreign object, can make it difficult to breathe. A cough, pain from the affected lung, wheezing and shortness of breath may be present during an episode of aspiration pneumonia.

Aspiration Pneumonia Treatment

Aspiration pneumonia is treated by removing the foreign object if possible and stopping the aspiration of more food or fluids. This may mean that the patient is not permitted to eat and will be given calories and fluids through an IV or by a feeding tube.  

Antibiotics are also an important part of treatment, to help minimize the bacteria collecting in the lungs, and prevent the infection from worsening.  This type of pneumonia can be challenging to treat and may require an extended course of antibiotic treatment.

Breathing treatments may also be provided to improve the ability to breathe easily, reduce coughing and irritation as well as improve oxygenation.