Aspiration Pneumonia: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Aspiration pneumonia (inflammatory lung infection) risk factors include dementia and dehydrationAspiration pneumonia is inflammation in the lungs, typically caused by an infection picked up from breathing in foreign matter – it’s also known as anaerobic pneumonia.

One study conducted in Japan looked at risk factors that contribute to the onset of aspiration pneumonia. Even though it’s a leading cause of death among aging populations, there is still much not known about the condition.


Participants were split into groups based on episodes of aspiration pneumonia. Based on analysis, the researchers were able to develop a list of risk factors that increase the odds of aspiration pneumonia, including:

  • Sputum suctioning
  • Daily oxygen therapy
  • Feeding support dependency
  • Urinary catheterization
  • Dementia
  • Dehydration

Deterioration of swallowing over the span of three months

Aspiration pneumonia causes

Aspiration pneumonia causesBacteria and viruses are the most common causes of aspiration pneumonia. When we’re healthy, the immune system fights off bacteria and viruses to keep us healthy, but if the germs are too strong, they can overpower the immune system and contribute to illness.

Normally, air is the only substance that goes into our lungs, so when food, drinks, vomitus, or saliva are inhaled into the lungs, it leads to aspiration pneumonia. The odds of developing aspiration pneumonia are higher in someone who has a problem with their gag reflex, which can occur in individuals with brain injuries or those who have dysphagia.

Other causes of aspiration pneumonia include:

  • Esophageal disorders
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • Comatose state
  • Reduced levels of alertness
  • Swallowing problems
  • Anesthesia
  • Aging
  • Dental problems that interfere with chewing or swallowing
  • Sedatives

Complications of Aspiration Pneumonia

If left untreated, aspiration pneumonia can lead to complications including the spreading of the infection to other areas of the body. If the infection spreads to the bloodstream, this can become very dangerous and even fatal.

In some cases, aspiration pneumonia can lead to shock or respiratory failure. If a patient has a condition that makes it difficult for them to swallow, the inflammation can worsen aspiration pneumonia and prevent proper healing.

Severe infection can lead to long-term scarring of the lungs.

Related: Is pneumonia contagious?

Aspiration pneumonia symptoms

Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia are similar to other forms of pneumonia and include:
Aspiration pneumonia symptoms

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Discoloration of the skin – usually blue
  • Cough accompanied by sputum, blood or mucus
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Bad breath
  • Excessive sweating

Symptoms of aspiration pneumonia will appear after a day or two.

Diagnosis of Aspiration Pneumonia

Your doctor will run a variety of tests to determine a diagnosis of aspiration pneumonia. These tests include:

  • Sputum culture
  • Complete blood count
  • Arterial blood gas test
  • CT scans of the chest
  • Swallowing tests
  • Blood culture
  • Chest x-ray

Treatment Methods for Aspiration Pneumonia

Treatment for aspiration pneumonia depends on the severity of the condition. If aspiration is severe, treatment may need to take place in a hospital setting. Otherwise, antibiotics can be prescribed and taken while resting at home.

Preventing Aspiration Pneumonia

Prevention of aspiration pneumonia is possible by following these helpful tips:

  • Avoid excessive drinking, which can lead to aspiration.
  • Recognize the signs of aspiration.
  • Receive proper dental care.
  • Manage conditions that increase your risk for aspiration pneumonia, such as lung infections, seizures, stroke, swallowing dysfunction, and neurological diseases.

Prognosis of Aspiration Pneumonia

Prognosis is largely based on how early a person is diagnosed and treated along with a person’s health prior to aspiration pneumonia. Recovery is also based on the type of bacteria that a person inhales.

Aspiration pneumonia is typically a more serious type of pneumonia and patients with aspiration pneumonia are most likely to visit a hospital or even pass away as a result. Generally, though, many patients do survive, and detecting aspirational pneumonia early on is the key to survival.

If a patient is older, doctors will pay close attention to their immunity as a means of reducing the risk of life-threatening outcomes.


It’s important that patients adhere to a full round of antibiotics and don’t stop them just because they begin to feel better after a few days. This ensures the bacteria is completely killed off, so the risk of reoccurrence is minimal.

If a patient has a pre-existing condition which affects swallowing, then recovery may be prolonged. In some cases, patients may develop lung scarring or lung abscesses.

If you suspect you have aspiration pneumonia, then ensure you seek out medical attention immediately to reduce your risk of complications and improve prognosis.

Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.


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