Healthy Living

What is Aspiration Pneumonia?

What is Aspiration Pneumonia?

What is Aspiration Pneumonia?

Aspiration pneumonia is a condition that is characterized by inflammation or swelling of the bronchial tubes. This disease comes occurs when inhaling gastric or oral contents. This type of pneumonia is not common and contraction is rare.

The major cause of aspiration pneumonia is the inhalation of substances of the gastrointestinal tract such as food, vomit and other liquids. Normally, your throat has some kind of bacteria which gets aspirated by gastric contents. If these bacteria grow in the lungs, it becomes pneumonia. The species of bacteria responsible this type of pneumonia is known as anaerobic bacteria. They include:

  • Prevotella bacteria
  • Peptostreptococcus
  • bacteroides  
  • E.Coli bacteria

It is important to know that any oral or gastric content can cause inflammation known as pneumonitis, and it can cause damage to the lung tissue.


In most cases, aspiration of lung bacteria leads to bacterial pneumonia coupled with a degree of pneumonitis. Some species of fungi and viruses can also cause pneumonia, but not through aspiration. However, there are a few special cases where these pathogens overpower the immune system leading to pneumonia.

Under normal conditions, only air is able to enter the lungs.  Aspiration pneumonia is a condition which is likely to occur if something happens to prevent your normal gag reflex. Some conditions causing abnormal gag reflex are:

Aspiration pneumonia is a condition commonly associated with dental problems, anesthesia, and esophageal disorders, causing problems chewing and swallowing. At times the muscles which aid peristalsis are weakened due to age or inactivity.  

In other special cases, people with normal swallowing and gag reflexes may develop aspiration pneumonia if their food or drinks go down the wrong pipe.

Many people are able to effectively expel their aspirate by creation of a strong cough, helping prevent pneumonia. However, some people have an impaired coughing ability and therefore cannot expel their aspirate. This is very common in people who have brain injuries or are unconscious. Sometimes people aspirate small amounts of saliva during the night, avoiding the development aspiration pneumonia. This is because they are able to clear their aspirate due to their active and healthy immune system. Some people who have compromised immune systems such as those undergoing chemotherapy or immunosuppressive drugs have a higher risk of developing aspiration pneumonia when they aspirate.

Who's at risk?

People at high risk of developing aspiration pneumonia are elderly people with a history of the following disease(s):

  • Dementia
  • Lung disease
  • Stroke
  • Head or neck radiation therapy
  • Brain seizure
  • Impaired mental conditions
  • Dental disease e.g. dental carries
  • Swallowing problems
  • Some neurologic diseases

Other conditions which can also lead to aspiration pneumonia are:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux also known as heartburn
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of aspiration pneumonia are similar to other types of pneumonia.

 They include:

If you have any of the symptoms listed above, you should contact your physician and let them know what sort of food you have been consuming, as well as any drugs you may have taken. Anyone suffering from the aforementioned symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.


During aspiration pneumonia diagnosis, your doctor may rely on the signs and symptoms of this condition. Other useful signs include:

  • Lung crackling sound
  • Increased or rapid heart beat
  • Decreased oxygen flow

There are a series of tests your doctor will use to diagnose aspiration pneumonia. They are as listed below:

  • Blood culture
  • X-ray of the chest
  • Sputum culture
  • Complete blood cell count
  • Chest CT scan
  • Arterial blood gas
  • Swallowing tests
  • MRI of the chest
  • Blue discoloration of the skin
  • Decreased mental alertness or awareness

Your specialist will also to test your swallowing ability. For example, you may be needed to take Barium during your X-ray scan. This procedure is also known as a Barium swallow study. It is aimed at giving your doctor a clear picture of any swallowing problems you may have.

Aspiration Pneumonia is a critical diagnosis that needs an immediate treatment. You should have your test results within 24 hours. It would require you take several tests to positively identify aspiration pneumonia.


The treatment measures for this condition depend on the severity. The very first line of treatment for aspiration pneumonia is the use of antibiotics. Severe pneumonia for example should be treated in the hospital. This is because the patient should be restricted to specific foods. Choosing the right antibiotic to treat this condition can also be very difficult. This is because it is hard to identify the bacteria causing the condition. Therefore the doctor should first identify the type of bacteria, fungus or virus causing the problem before prescribing any medication.

Some other things your doctor may need to identify before giving the appropriate medication are:

  • Overall health status
  • Where you live
  • Recently used antibiotics
  • Any recent hospitalization

If you are treated with antibiotics for aspiration pneumonia use them as prescribed, which may vary from 7-14 days. Specific antibiotics which can be used to treat this condition are:

Aspiration pneumonia leading to breathing problems may need a different prescription to enhance mechanical ventilation in severe cases.

The duration of this treatment may vary depending on the body's overall health, hospital policies, and preexisting health conditions.

Is it preventable?

Yes, it can be prevented. You can reduce the risk factors of the condition by:

  • Receiving proper and regular dental care
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption
  • Identifying the risks of aspiration in particular situations

In the event your doctor identifies risk of developing aspiration pneumonia, you are required to undergo a comprehensive test. This test is performed by a licensed therapist or a speech pathologist.

Bottom Line

Aspiration pneumonia is a very serious disease which can result in death if not treated properly. However, the disease is preventable and treatable. Many people suffering from aspiration pneumonia may also have other underlying health conditions that may affect the ability to swallow.

If you are at high risk of developing aspiration pneumonia, you should follow preventative measures or see your doctor immediately. You should also see your doctor in case you experience any of the aforementioned signs and symptoms to identify aspiration pneumonia or other potential conditions.