Aspiration pneumonia is a type of pneumonia that might occur if a person breathes something in instead of swallowing it. The germs from food particles, saliva, vomit, or other substances may infect the airways and lead to aspiration pneumonia.

In this article, learn about the causes and risk factors of aspiration pneumonia, as well as how doctors diagnose the condition.

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

What is aspiration pneumonia?

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 getting into the lungs and airways.

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

Healthy lungs can usually handle the bacteria from these accidents and get rid of as much of it as possible by causing a person to cough.

People who have trouble coughing, are already ill, or who have compromised immune systems are more prone to aspiration pneumonia.

Aspiration pneumonia is most common in older individuals and younger children but can affect anyone.

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Can you die from aspiration pneumonia?

It is possible to die from aspiration pneumonia so doctors will address the condition as soon as possible.

Doctors will give special consideration to each person’s treatment to ensure they receive the correct antibiotic.

Life-threatening complications might occur if the person has gone too long without treatment or has a compromised immune system.

Causes and risk factors

Aspiration pneumonia often occurs if a person has a compromised immune system and inhales an object containing a lot of germs.

In many cases, the person will cough automatically, which will expel these unwanted particles and prevent aspiration pneumonia from developing.

People who have an impaired ability to cough may be more at risk of developing an infection from inhaling something, particularly if the object was large or was a source of infectious germs.

Other risk factors for aspiration pneumonia 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

The type of germs infecting the lungs or large airways may also change depending on many factors, but they are usually Streptococcus pneumonia, Staphylococcus aureus, or gram-negative infectious bacteria.

Symptoms

Woman in bed with high fever and oral thermometer.
A high fever and difficulty breathing may indicate aspiration pneumonia.

Aspiration pneumonia can cause a range of symptoms, including:

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

Anyone with these symptoms should contact their doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Signs such as colored phlegm and high fever in children or older adults justify a trip to urgent care.

Diagnosis

Doctors will work to diagnose and treat aspiration pneumonia as fast as possible. Doctors will typically ask about symptoms and then do a physical exam to check for signs of pneumonia.

Signs could include a crackling noise in the lungs while the person is breathing or a person is having difficulty breathing.

X-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans can provide images of the lungs. Doctors may also use a bronchoscope to look at the airways and check for any blockages.

A sputum culture test, complete blood count (CBC), or arterial blood gas test can help gauge how severe the infection is and what type of treatment is required.

Treatment

Treatment for aspiration pneumonia will vary greatly depending on the person’s overall health and the severity of their symptoms.

Antibiotics are commonly used to help clear out the infection and avoid serious complications. Doctors may need to wait until test results come back to determine which antibiotic to prescribe, as some bacteria are resistant to certain antibiotics.

Some people may need to be hospitalized and monitored. If a person is having difficulty breathing, they may need to use a breathing machine.

If the person is having difficulty swallowing, doctors may recommend an assisted feeding method or a change of eating habits to avoid further aspiration.

Complications

Doctor using stethoscope listening to patients breathing.
Seeing a doctor as soon as possible may prevent complications.

Aspiration pneumonia can cause severe complications, especially if a person waits too long to go to the doctor.

The infection may progress quickly and spread to other areas of the body. It may also spread to the bloodstream, which is especially dangerous.

Pockets or abscesses may form in the lungs. In some cases, pneumonia can cause shock or respiratory failure.

Diseases that affect swallowing or cause further inflammation may make aspiration pneumonia worse or prevent it from healing properly.

Some severe infections may result in long-term damage and scarring in the lungs and major airways.

Prevention

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

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

Prescription medications that affect the muscles or make a person overly drowsy can also increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia.

Anyone who feels that their food regularly goes down the wrong pipe when they are taking prescription medications should talk to their doctor about adjusting the dosage or switching medications to avoid breathing in foreign particles.

Other tips to help prevent 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 critical factors, such as how soon the person went to the doctor with their symptoms, how far the symptoms progressed, and their general health before getting pneumonia.

The type of object inhaled and the strain of bacterial infection may also play a role in a person’s recovery.

Aspiration pneumonia appears to be more severe than the common form of pneumonia. In one study, researchers noted that people with aspirational pneumonia were much more likely to check into a hospital, stay in intensive care, or pass away from the illness compared to people with community-acquired pneumonia.

That said, most people survive aspiration pneumonia, but full recovery can take some time.

Doctors will carefully monitor older individuals or those with compromised immune systems to avoid life-threatening complications.

It is essential to follow a doctor’s treatment plan to give the body the best chance of recovery. Unless otherwise told by a doctor, always complete a full course of antibiotic treatment, even if symptoms go away early on in the treatment.

Lifestyle changes, such as improving oral hygiene and quitting drugs or alcohol, may also help prevent aspiration pneumonia.