Aspiration Pneumonia - Diagnosis, Treatment, Complications, Prognosis and Prevention

Authored by Dr Laurence Knott, 07 Jul 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Prof Cathy Jackson, 07 Jul 2017

How is aspiration pneumonia diagnosed?

 If you develop typical symptoms (see the section called 'Symptoms') and come into the category of someone who is at risk of aspiration pneumonia, the doctor will consider this diagnosis. Other conditions that can cause similar symptoms include:

Will I need any tests?

You will probably need some tests to help the doctor sort out the diagnosis. This may include blood tests, a test of your phlegm (sputum culture), a chest X-ray and sometimes a lung scan.

What are the treatment options for aspiration pneumonia?

  • If there is something obstructing the airway, like a foreign object or piece of food, an attempt can be made to remove it. Depending on how far down the airway system the obstruction is, you may need suctioning of the upper airway (the trachea) or a bronchoscopy.
  • You may need to have a tube put into your trachea and connected to a ventilator to help you breathe.
  • Antibiotics will probably be required.
  • You may also need fluid through a drip, medication (called bronchodilators) to relax your airways, and physiotherapy to help get the phlegm off your chest.
  • You may also need therapy to help with any swallowing difficulties that might have caused the aspiration in the first place.
  • If the aspiration pneumonia develops at home and your symptoms are mild, you may not need hospital admission to start with. However, if your symptoms are severe or you don't respond to treatment, you may need to be admitted to hospital.

What are the complications of aspiration pneumonia?

If aspiration pneumonia isn't treated, you can end up with a lung abscess (a collection of pus in the lung tissue) or bronchiectasis. You can also develop acute respiratory distress (a condition in which the lungs suddenly fill up with fluid and breathing becomes very difficult).

What is the outlook for aspiration pneumonia?

The chance of recovering from aspiration pneumonia depends on the original cause, how well you were before you developed it and whether you had any complications. It also depends on how quickly the condition was recognised and how soon effective treatment was started.

How can aspiration pneumonia be prevented?

If you are bed-bound and at risk of aspiration, keeping the head end of the bed raised at an angle of 30° may help.

If you have swallowing difficulties, reduced sensitivity to irritants at the back of your throat, or have some other condition that makes you prone to aspiration, feeding through a nasogastric tube may reduce the risk.

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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