Aspiration Pneumonia

Lobar Pneumonia Medical Illustration - NIH

Inhaling Foreign Substances Can Cause Serious Health Problems

Lobar Pneumonia Medical Illustration - NIH
Lobar Pneumonia Medical Illustration – NIH. Lobar bacterial pneumonia. This figure shows pneumonia affecting the single lower lobe of the left lung. Figure A shows the location of the lungs and airways in the body. Figure B shows normal alveoli. Figure C shows infected alveoli or air sacs.

Other Names: Anaerobic Pneumonia; Aspiration of vomitus; Aspiration Pneumonitis; Chemical Pneumonitis; Necrotizing Pneumonia

Aspiration pneumonia is a complication of pulmonary aspiration (inhalation) that results in a pneumonia infection.

Pulmonary aspiration is the medical therm for when when any liquid, food, stomach acid, saliva, or vomit is accidentally inhaled into the lungs.  Food that has been swallowed into the stomach can also travel back up to the esophagus and be aspirated.

About Aspiration Pneumonia: Aspiration pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs and bronchial tubes caused by inhaling foreign material, usually food, drink, vomit, or secretions from the mouth into the lungs. This may progress to form a collection of pus in the lungs (lung abscess). Moreover, visitors, staff, and residents constantly come and go, bringing in pathogens from both the hospital and the community. Outbreaks of respiratory and gastrointestinal infection predominate in this setting, but outbreaks of skin and soft-tissue infection and infections caused by antimicrobial-resistant bacteria also occur with some frequency. Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 36, Issue 7, 1 April 2003, Pages 870–876
The Elderly Have a Higher Risk of Aspiration Syndrome

One of the most significant dangers of pulmonary aspiration, aside from the choking hazard itself,  is the exposure to harmful bacteria and contaminants if a foreign liquid or matter is inhaled into the lungs.  This can lead to serious infections, including aspiration pneumonia, and even death.

Although anyone can accidentally inhale something into their lungs, certain individuals are at a higher risk of aspiration than others.  These are people who may have an existing health condition, or are elderly.  As we age, swallowing naturally often becomes more difficult and the risk of choking and aspiration increases.

Aspiration syndromes include all conditions in which foreign substances are inhaled into the lungs. Most commonly, aspiration syndromes involve oral or gastric contents associated with gastroesophageal reflux (GER), swallowing dysfunction, neurological disorders, and structural abnormalities.  Additionally, you are more likely to inhale something improperly if:

  • Your immune system is already weak;
  • You cannot cough properly, or your lungs are already suffering (i.e., while under sedation, or if you have had a stroke, or Alzheimer’s diease);
  • The bacteria is virulent and harder to fight;
  • The elderly.

Chemical Pneumonitis and Other Dangerous Complications of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a serious swelling or infection of the lungs or large airways that can be debilitating or even deadly among the elderly.  Bacteria, viruses, and fungi infections can cause pneumonia. These infections cause inflammation in the air sacs, or alveoli, of the lungs. This inflammation causes the air sacs to fill with fluid and pus.

Additional complications of aspiration pneumonia include:

  • Damage to your lungs may cause reduced oxygen flow into your blood;
  • Sepsis, an infection of the blood;
  • Lung abscess (part of the lung dies); and
  • Chemical Pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lung caused by aspirating or inhaling irritants.

Any of the risks of aspiration pneumonia can be potentially life-threatening so it is especially important among the elderly population to provide follow-up medical care after an incident of aspiration has occurred.  Even if a person seems fine immediately following the incident, they may not be fine as it can take hours or days for secondary infections or damage from pulmonary aspiration to become obvious.

Signs and Symptoms of Aspiration Pneumonia

More common symptoms of problems as a result of aspiration include sudden shortness of breath and a cough that can begin within minutes or hours later.  Other symptoms may include fever and pink frothy sputum. In some cases, the symptoms of aspiration pneumonia may not occur a day or two after inhalation of the toxin.

Why Aspiration Pneumonia Can Be So Deadly

Pneumonia is a serious lung infection, but in general, it has a relatively low mortality. This is not the case with aspiration pneumonia.  The condition that caused aspiration in the first place, combined with the increased potential for sepsis, raises the risk of serious complication or death.  Aspiration pneumonitis, a complication of aspiration pneumonia is a much more serious condition, with a mortality of up to 70%.

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