Aspiration pneumonitis and pneumonia are caused by inhaling toxic substances, usually gastric contents, into the lungs. Chemical pneumonitis, bacterial pneumonia, or airway obstruction can occur. Symptoms include cough and dyspnea. Diagnosis is based on clinical presentation and chest x-ray findings. Treatment and prognosis differ by aspirated substance.
Aspiration can cause lung inflammation (chemical pneumonitis), infection (bacterial pneumonia or abscess), or airway obstruction. However, most episodes of aspiration cause minor symptoms or pneumonitis rather than infection or obstruction, and some patients aspirate with no sequelae. Drowning is discussed in Drowning; airway obstruction is discussed in Etiology.
Risk factors for aspiration include impaired cognition, impaired swallowing, vomiting, GI and respiratory devices and procedures (eg, nasogastric or endotracheal tube placement, dental work), and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Multiple substances are directly toxic to the lungs or stimulate an inflammatory response when aspirated; gastric acid is the most common such aspirated substance, but others include petroleum products (particularly of low viscosity, such as petroleum jelly) and laxative oils (such as mineral, castor, and paraffin oil), all of which cause lipoid pneumonia. Aspirated gasoline and kerosene also cause a chemical pneumonitis (see Hydrocarbon Poisoning).
Gastric contents cause damage mainly from gastric acid, although food and other ingested material (eg, activated charcoal as in treatment of overdose) are injurious in quantity. Gastric acid causes a chemical burn of the airways and lung leading to rapid bronchoconstriction, atelectasis, edema, and alveolar hemorrhage. Symptoms include acute dyspnea with cough that is sometimes productive of pink frothy sputum, tachypnea, tachycardia, fever, diffuse crackles, and wheezing. Chest x-ray shows diffuse infiltrates frequently but not exclusively in dependent segments, while pulse-oximetry and ABGs demonstrate hypoxemia. Treatment is supportive, often involving supplemental O2 and mechanical ventilation. Antibiotics often are given to patients with witnessed or known gastric aspiration. The syndrome may resolve spontaneously, usually within a few days, or may progress to acute respiratory distress syndrome. Sometimes bacterial superinfection occurs.
Oil or petroleum jelly aspiration causes exogenous lipoid pneumonia, which is characterized histologically by chronic granulomatous inflammation with fibrosis. It is often asymptomatic and is detected incidentally on chest x-ray or may manifest with low-grade fever, gradual weight loss, and crackles. Chest x-ray findings vary; consolidation, cavitation, interstitial or nodular infiltrates, pleural effusion, and other changes may be slowly progressive. Treatment is avoidance of the toxic substance. Anecdotal reports suggest systemic corticosteroids may be beneficial.
Healthy people commonly aspirate small amounts of oral secretions, but normal defense mechanisms usually clear the inoculum without sequelae. Aspiration of larger amounts, or aspiration in a patient with impaired pulmonary defenses, often causes pneumonia and/or abscess (see also Lung Abscess). Elderly patients tend to aspirate because of conditions associated with aging that alter consciousness, such as sedative use and disorders (eg, neurologic disorders, weakness). Empyema (see Etiology) also occasionally complicates aspiration.
Anaerobes often can be cultured from sputum, but it is unclear whether they are primary infecting organisms to which treatment should be directed or whether they are simply one of several organisms causing infection.
Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms and signs of pneumonia and abscess are similar and include chronic low-grade dyspnea, fever, weight loss, and cough productive of putrid, foul-tasting sputum. Patients may have signs of poor oral hygiene.
Chest x-ray shows an infiltrate, frequently but not exclusively, in the dependent lung segments, ie, the superior or posterior basal segments of a lower lobe or the posterior segment of an upper lobe.
Treatment of lung abscess is with clindamycin 450 to 900 mg IV q 8 h followed by 300 mg po qid once fever and clinical symptoms subside. An alternative is a combination of penicillin (either penicillin G 1 to 2 million units q 4 to 6 h or amoxicillin 0.5 to 1 g po tid) plus either metronidazole 500 mg po tid, amoxicillin/clavulanate 875/125 mg po tid, or imipenem. Treatment is continued for 6 wk to 3 mo.
Treatment of aspiration pneumonia can be with clindamycin, but other antibiotics with lower risk of adverse effects may be effective, because it is not clear that all the anaerobes cultured from the infection require specific treatment. Duration of treatment is usually 1 to 2 wk.
Last full review/revision May 2008 by John G. Bartlett, MD
Content last modified November 2013