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Aspiration pneumonia

Pneumonia is a breathing condition in which there is swelling or an infection of the lungs or large airways.

Aspiration pneumonia occurs when food, saliva, liquids, or vomit is breathed into the lungs or airways leading to the lungs, instead of being swallowed into the esophagus and stomach.

Causes of Aspiration pneumonia

The type of bacteria that caused the pneumonia depends on:

  • Your health
  • Where you live (at home or in a long-term nursing facility, for example)
  • Whether you were recently hospitalized
  • Your recent antibiotic use
  • Whether your immune system is weakened

Risk factors for breathing in (aspiration) of foreign material into the lungs are:

  • Being less alert due to medicines, illness, or other reasons
  • Coma
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • Receiving medicine to put you into a deep sleep for surgery (general anesthesia)
  • Old age
  • Poor gag reflex in people who are not alert (unconscious or semi-conscious) after a stroke or brain injury
  • Problems with swallowing

Aspiration pneumonia Symptoms

Symptoms may include any of the following:

Tests and Exams

A physical examination may reveal:

  • Bluish discoloration of the skin caused by lack of oxygen
  • Crackling sounds in the lungs
  • Decreased oxygen
  • Rapid pulse (fast heartbeat)
  • Decreased mental awareness

The following tests may also help diagnose this condition:

Treatment of Aspiration pneumonia

Some people may need to be hospitalized. Treatment depends on how severe the pneumonia is and how ill the person is before the aspiration (chronic illness). Sometimes a ventilator (breathing machine) is needed to support breathing.

You will likely receive antibiotics.

You may need to have your swallowing function tested. People who have trouble swallowing may need to use other feeding methods to reduce the risk of aspiration.

Prognosis (Outlook)

Outcome depends on:

  • The health of the person before getting pneumonia
  • The type of bacteria causing the pneumonia
  • How much of the lungs are involved

More severe infections may result in long-term damage to the lungs.

Potential Complications

Complications may include:

  • Lung abscess
  • Shock
  • Spread of infection to the bloodstream (bacteremia)
  • Spread of infection to other areas of the body
  • Respiratory failure
  • Death

When to Contact a Health Professional

Call your health care provider, go to the emergency room, or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing


Musher D. Overview of pneumonia. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 97.

Torres A, Menendez R, Wunderink R. Bacterial pneumonia and lung abscess. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al., eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 33.

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Review Date: 2/2/2015
Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Paul F. Harron Jr. Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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