What Is Pulmonary Aspiration?

Pulmonary aspiration may occur when a foreign substance is inhaled into a person's lungs.
Laughing at inopportune times may lead to pulmonary aspiration.
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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2014
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Pulmonary aspiration occurs when a person inhales a foreign substance into his lungs. There are many things that may accidentally be inhaled, instead of traveling on to the stomach as expected. Possibilities include food, drink, and medications. In some cases, however, it is mucus that causes this problem, and a person may even aspirate saliva. Unfortunately, pulmonary aspiration is not harmless; it often causes choking. It may even lead to a potentially serious infection of the lungs that is referred to as aspiration pneumonia.

When a person swallows food, liquid, medication, or any other substance, it usually begins to make its way through the esophagus and into the stomach. Unfortunately, however, substances that make their way into the mouth do not always follow the normal path through the digestive system. Sometimes, a foreign substance will enter the windpipe, which leads to the lungs, instead.

A person’s windpipe is positioned in front of his esophagus. This placement makes it easy for foreign substances to make their way into the lungs instead of the stomach. Usually, pulmonary aspiration occurs when a person’s coordinated breathing and swallowing is interrupted or impaired. Under normal circumstances, a person does not inhale at the same time as he is swallowing. Sometimes, however, the automatic coordination of these events is thrown off by something as simple as laughing while eating or drinking.

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In addition to laughter at inopportune times, there is a range of issues that may lead to pulmonary aspiration. They include breathing disorders, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and defects that affect the throat. A person may also have this problem because of a disorder that affects the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis. In some cases, medications and surgical procedures may cause or contribute to pulmonary aspiration. Additionally, people who have an impaired ability to cough because of some type of medical problem may be especially prone to pulmonary aspiration.

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for this condition, but there are steps a person can take to prevent it. For example, a person may avoid talking or laughing while he is eating or drinking. He may also perform tongue exercises and make an effort to swallow only when he is holding his head down or tilting his head to one side. Sometimes thickening liquids or putting smaller amounts of food in one’s mouth may prove helpful as well. In the event that pulmonary aspiration leads to pneumonia, doctors usually prescribe antibiotics to treat it.

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giddion
Post 4

I've heard that the pulmonary aspiration treatment method varies depending on what you inhaled. I'm not sure if this is correct, but I've heard that if you inhale stomach contents, you don't need antibiotics, but if you inhale saliva, you do. Is this true?

Oceana
Post 3

I almost suffered from pulmonary aspiration as a child. I laughed while eating fish sticks, and some of the crumbs tried to get into my lungs.

Luckily, they got caught in my nose instead. Well, I didn't think I was lucky at the time, but I do now.

Those crumbs could not be blown out or sucked down into my throat. I tried all day. This was very uncomfortable, and I felt like I was in danger.

They finally got loose somehow and fell down into my throat. I'm glad that my nose protected me from pulmonary aspiration!

cloudel
Post 2

@kylee07drg – It's funny to read big terms for simple things like this. Before my mother had surgery, her doctor told her that she had to fast the night and morning before going under to avoid pulmonary aspiration of gastric contents.

He saw the look of confusion and fear on her face, so he smiled and said, “So your stomach's contents don't go into your lungs while you're out.” I don't know why he didn't just say this in the first place!

kylee07drg
Post 1

I've always just said that something went down the wrong way. I thought that pulmonary aspiration must be some sort of lung disorder. I didn't know it was a fancy way of saying that you inhaled food!

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