What is aspiration pneumonia? What causes aspiration pneumonia?

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Aspiration pneumonia is one of the causes of coughing after eating.

As you eat your food, if you suspect the food entered into your lungs and not your stomach, that’s a problem. That can make you cough after you eat as the food in lungs obstructs your respiration.

There can be many reasons why food enters lungs and not stomach. These include poor oral health, alcoholism, dysphagia etc.

What is aspiration pneumonia?

Aspirate means inhale. When you aspirate food, drink or vomit into your lungs, it may lead to aspiration pneumonia. If you cannot cough up the food, drink or vomit that has entered your lungs, bacteria can develop on the food and cause aspiration pneumonia.

Aspiration pneumonia is an infection of lungs. When a large amount of food enters lungs, it leads to aspiration pneumonia. The food may enter lungs either from mouth or stomach. When food enters lungs and causes aspiration pneumonia, a person may develop fever and cough very rapidly. Though fever and cough after eating are common symptoms of aspiration pneumonia, sometimes it can lead to lung abscess.



Food entering lungs may not necessarily cause an an infection. But lung infection is very much possible with food in lungs as the food may contain a range of bacteria. This infection is aspiration pneumonia. But it is not the bacteria in food that causes aspiration pneumonia. Sometimes non-infectious but acidic food entering lungs can lead to a type of aspiration pneumonia known as chemical pneumonitis.

Aspiration pneumonia may present symptoms similar to other types of pneumonia such as bacterial pneumonia, fungal pneumonia, viral pneumonia or hospital acquired pneumonia. Due to this, it is not always easy to diagnose aspiration pneumonia.


What causes aspiration pneumonia?

Aspiration pneumonia is primarily caused by by food entering lungs instead of stomach. But what causes food to enter lungs? Some reasons why food enters lungs include the below.

In people suffering from dysphagia, there is always a risk of food from mouth or stomach entering into lungs. This is due to the fact that the swallowing mechanism does not work properly in people with dysphagia.

Some other health conditions like stroke, parkinson’s disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis or advanced COPD can weaken your immune system and put you at risk of aspiration pneumonia.

Poor levels of consciousness may cause the swallowing mechanism to fail and allow food to pass into lungs.

Seizures, anesthasia, alcohol etc. can damage muscles that help you swallow and disable body’s natural mechanism to prevent food entering lungs.

If someone does not keep good oral health, bacteria can build up in mouth. Such poor oral hygiene can also lead to aspiration pneumonia.

If someone is older than 75 and has been in a care home or hospital for very long, they can get aspiration pneumonia easily.

There can be many other reasons for aspiration pneumonia. These include ethnicity, age, gender, malnutrition, side effects of medicines etc.

What are the symptoms of aspiration pneumonia?

If you are coughing for no reason with or without mucus, it may be aspiration pneumonia. You may cough after you eat if food you swallow enters lungs instead of stomach.

A strange change in voice can be experienced.

If your swallowing mechanism is damaged, you will find it difficult to swallow. Difficulty in swallowing may be an early sign of aspiration pneumonia.

If your lungs get infected after you aspire food, drink or vomit into lungs, you may have a fever. Fever is a common symptom of aspiration pneumonia.

The food or drink that’s stuck in your lungs can cause chest pain. Infected lungs can also cause pain in chest. So chest pain is another sign of aspiration pneumonia.

Poor alertness, lack of concentration, confusion and unable to think clearly are common experiences of people with aspiration pneumonia.

A person with aspiration pneumonia may lose appetite and lose weight.

Abnormal breathing is a common symptom of aspiration pneumonia. Breathing can become noisy and rapid. Sometimes the patient can feel shortness of breath.

How do you diagnose aspiration pneumonia?

If you suspect you have aspiration pneumonia, you must see your doctor as soon as you can. Your doctor can diagnose your condition. Depending the severity of your symptoms, the doctor may do some examinations on you to diagnose your symptoms.

Diagnosis of aspiration pneumonia starts with a simple physical examination. Doctor may look into your mouth and throat and listen to your chest to begin with. Doctor may want to listen to your speech to look for any strange changes in your speech. Your body vitals like blood pressure, blood oxygen etc. also play a role in aspiration pneumonia diagnosis.

If your doctor feels it is necessary, you may need to go for a chest X-ray. A chest X-ray can reveal any chest infection, inflammation or fluid accumulation in your lungs.

You may need to get your mucus tested for bacteria. To conduct mucus test, doctor may ask you to collect your mucus or extract the mucus from your throat. They look for any bacteria in mucus that may cause aspiration pneumonia.

A blood test can reveal if you have an infection. If you have a chest infection that’s making you cough due to aspiration pneumonia, your blood test shows higher white blood cell count.

A neuro examination can reveal how your nervous system is impacted by aspiration pneumonia. Your memory, level of alertness, hand grip etc. are common factors that are observed during this test.

Sometimes, your doctor may want to observe your swallowing mechanism. You may need to swallow various food of different consistency and be observed to record how well you can swallow food.

How is aspiration pneumonia treated?

Aspiration pneumonia treatment involves a combination of techniques and medicines. Any treatment of aspiration pneumonia needs to be carried out only by a qualified doctor.

If you show signs of infection related to aspiration pneumonia, you may need some antibiotics to treat the infection.

If you are unable to breathe well if your air passages have shrunk due to aspiration pneumonia, you may need steroids. Steroids expand your air passages and help you breathe easier.

If your blood tests show lower oxygen levels, you may need to take some oxygen via a  mask.

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