What Is Inhalation Pneumonia?

Inhalation pneumonia can cause a chronic cough.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 05 July 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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Inhalation pneumonia is a lung condition that occurs when a liquid or solid substance is accidentally breathed into the airways. Foreign substances such as regurgitated stomach contents, saliva, foods, and drinks can irritate and inflame the lungs, and possibly introduce serious bacterial infections. The severity of symptoms depends on how much of the material was inhaled, but most people experience chronic coughing, wheezing, chest pain, and fatigue. Mild cases of inhalation pneumonia can usually be treated with oral antibiotics. Patients who develop severe, persistent symptoms may need to receive oxygen therapy and intravenous antibiotics in a hospital.

Most people who experience inhalation pneumonia are incapacitated at the time the foreign substance is inhaled. A person may be having a seizure or stroke, or be under general anesthesia for a surgical procedure. Individuals who consume too much alcohol or are under the influence of sedative drugs may also choke on mouth fluids or vomit and inhale some into their lungs. Occasionally, foods or liquids find their way to the lungs of people with poor gag reflexes or chronic throat problems. Having gastrointestinal reflux disease increases the chances of inhalation pneumonia as well.

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Inhaling stomach acids in vomit causes a chemical inflammatory response in the lungs. Likewise, saliva and other mouth contents harbor bacteria, which can lead to infected abscesses in lung tissue if inhalation occurs. Both types of inhalation pneumonia can cause a person to cough painfully and have trouble taking normal breaths. An individual may wheeze, feel very fatigued, and develop a fever. If bacteria are present, his or her breath may have a foul odor and coughing may produce green, bloody phlegm. It is important to visit a doctor or emergency room at the first possible sign of inhalation pneumonia to learn about treatment options.

A doctor can confirm inhalation pneumonia is responsible for symptoms by listening to the lungs, checking oxygen levels in the blood, and taking imaging scans of the chest. He or she looks for signs of bacterial abscesses and inflammation to gauge the seriousness of the disorder. If tests are inconclusive, a fiber optic camera called a bronchoscope may be fed through the mouth into the lungs so the doctor can see internal tissue.

Many people who experience inhalation pneumonia are able to get better in a few days with rest and proper fluid intake. Bacterial infections tend to respond well to a two-week course of oral antibiotics. A patient who has serious breathing difficulties may need to be hospitalized and given oxygen therapy. With prompt care, even severe cases of pneumonia are usually curable.

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