Aspiration pneumonia is infection from germs (present in body fluid or matter) that have leaked into the lungs from the stomach or mouth.
Who is prone to aspiration pneumonia?
You're unlikely to get it if you're a young fit adult. It often hits kids and the elderly. It can involve people living at home and people in hospital.
What are the symptoms?
When it starts it'll probably feel like the worst case of flu you've ever had, with a high temperature, headache and aches and pains. Sooner or later you'll develop a cough with phlegm that can be a green or yellow colour. You might become breathless and develop chest pain on deep breathing. A doctor examining you may find various unusual features such as a rapid heartbeat and breathing rate.
Read more about the symptoms of aspiration pneumonia.
What causes it?
The basic cause is spit, bits of food or stomach contents entering the lungs. Any of these will also bring germs (bacteria) with them into the lungs, which sets up an infection.
There are many situations in which the risk of aspiration is increased. This includes any condition which makes you drowsy or completely unconscious, such as fits, strokes, or being under the influence of booze or drugs.
Any condition which increases the likelihood that muck will enter the lungs, like an opening between the food tube and the main airway (tracheo-bronchial fistula), gum disease or acid reflux, can lead to aspiration pneumonia.
Learn more about the causes of aspiration pneumonia.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will think of this diagnosis if you develop symptoms of pneumonia and you have one or more risk factors for aspiration.
You'll probably need some tests to rule out other causes of pneumonia or other conditions that cause similar symptoms. .
Find out more about the diagnosis of aspiration pneumonia.
How is it treated?
If you've got an obvious obstruction like a bit of food, a doctor might attempt to get it out with a suction tube or scope designed for use in the airways (bronchoscope). You'll probably need antibiotics, some fluid from a drip and treatment with a medicine (called a bronchodilator) to relax your airways. A physiotherapist may arrive to thump your chest and help you get up the phlegm.
Read more about the treatment of aspiration pneumonia.
Are there any complications?
If your condition is diagnosed early enough and you have effective treatment you're unlikely to get any complications. If treatment is delayed you could get a lung abscess or bronchiectasis. Sudden deterioration in breathing (respiratory distress syndrome) is also possible.
Discover more about the complications of aspiration pneumonia.
What is the outlook?
This depends on a number of factors, such as the cause, your general health, whether you had any complications and how soon you started effective treatment.
Read more about the outlook (prognosis) of aspiration pneumonia.
How can it be prevented?
If you're prone to aspiration pneumonia, raising the head end of the bed may help. If you have swallowing difficulties, you might benefit from being fed through a tube (a nasogastric tube), inserted through your nostril into your stomach.
Further reading and references
Armstrong JR, Mosher BD; Aspiration pneumonia after stroke: intervention and prevention. Neurohospitalist. 2011 Apr1(2):85-93. doi: 10.1177/1941875210395775.
Ebihara S, Sekiya H, Miyagi M, et al; Dysphagia, dystussia, and aspiration pneumonia in elderly people. J Thorac Dis. 2016 Mar8(3):632-9. doi: 10.21037/jtd.2016.02.60.
Kovesi T; Aspiration Risk and Respiratory Complications in Patients with Esophageal Atresia. Front Pediatr. 2017 Apr 35:62. doi: 10.3389/fped.2017.00062. eCollection 2017.
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