Aspiration Pneumonia

What is aspiration pneumonia?

Aspiration pneumonia, also called anaerobic pneumonia, is an infection of the lungs caused by a type of bacteria called anaerobic bacteria. The infection is usually not contagious.

What is the cause?

The type of bacteria that cause this infection live best in places that have little or no oxygen, such as the mouth and intestine. They can infect your lungs if you accidentally breathe food, saliva, or vomit into your lungs.

Your risk of aspiration pneumonia is higher if you:

  • Have been unconscious
  • Have a poor gag reflex, which can happen after stroke or brain injury
  • Have problems with swallowing
  • Abuse drugs or alcohol

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain when you breathe or cough
  • Cough that brings up mucus from the lungs
  • Bad-smelling sputum
  • Weight loss

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Tests of a sample of mucus coughed up from deep in your lungs
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of your chest

Sometimes it is necessary to get a sample of fluid from deep in the lungs for lab tests. The 2 main ways of doing this are:

  • Thoracentesis. After numbing the area, your healthcare provider inserts a needle through a space between your ribs and draws out some fluid.
  • Bronchoscopy. Your provider passes a flexible, lighted tube through your mouth and down into your lungs to look at your airways and get a sample of fluid or tissue from your lungs.

If you have a swallowing problem, you may have swallowing tests to check on the cause and severity of the problem.

How is it treated?

Aspiration pneumonia is usually treated with IV antibiotics. Depending on how ill you are, this may be done at home or at the hospital. Once you start to get better, your healthcare provider may switch you to oral medicine. This type of pneumonia often needs several weeks of treatment with an antibiotic.

If your chest X-ray shows a lot of fluid or pus in your lungs, you may need to have a drainage tube inserted through your chest wall. The tube drains infected material from your lungs. The tube will be removed when the drainage stops and your chest X-ray shows improvement.

With treatment, you may recover in 1 to 4 weeks. If you are over 60 years old or have other medical problems, it may take longer to get your strength back and feel normal.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Finish the full course of the antibiotic treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Rest until you no longer have a fever, chest pain, or shortness of breath.
  • Drink more liquids (water or tea) every day to help you cough up mucus more easily unless your provider says you need to limit fluids because of another medical condition you have.
  • Cough up lung secretions as much as possible. Use cough medicine only if your provider recommends it.
  • Use a humidifier to put more moisture in the air. Avoid steam vaporizers because they can cause burns. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean, as recommended in the manufacturer's instructions. It's important to keep bacteria and mold from growing in the water container.
  • Ask your provider about taking aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen for fever or chest pain.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take this medicine for more than 10 days.
    • Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
  • Use a heating pad on a low setting to reduce chest pain. Be careful not to fall asleep while you are using the heating pad.
  • Ask your provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent aspiration pneumonia?

If you have a swallowing problem, you can learn ways to eat and drink that avoid choking and help keep you from breathing in food or saliva. Ask your healthcare provider about seeing an occupational therapist or other specialist. They can teach you or your family how you can get the nutrition you need while limiting the risk of choking.

If you have a problem with alcohol or drug abuse, seek counseling and treatment.

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Published by RelayHealth.
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