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Aspiration Pronunciation: as-pi-RAY-shun

Definition: Aspiration refers to the entry of foreign material into the airway or lungs. This can include food, drink, saliva, or other material, and can potentially lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia or other respiratory issues.

What is Aspiration?


Aspiration happens when foreign material is inhaled into the respiratory tract. Items that are commonly aspirated include food, drink, vomit, drugs, and saliva. Aspiration can happen when a person has trouble swallowing normally. This is known as dysphagia.

Key Facts About Aspiration:

  • Aspiration can cause a range of complications, the most serious of which is aspiration pneumonia, a type of lung infection.
  • People who are at risk for aspiration include those who have trouble swallowing (dysphagia), those who have a weakened immune system, or those who are sedated or unconscious.
  • Preventative measures, such as changing eating habits, altering body position, and certain treatments can help manage the risk of aspiration.
  • In severe cases, aspiration may require medical intervention, including suction or even surgery.

Frequently Asked Questions About Aspiration

Aspiration is the entry of foreign material into the airway or lungs. It can occur when you’re eating, drinking, or even when you vomit. It’s a common problem that occurs when a person has trouble swallowing, also known as dysphagia.

What Causes Aspiration?

Aspiration usually occurs when the body’s normal reflexes are compromised, particularly those that prevent things other than air from being inhaled into the lungs. Several circumstances or health conditions can contribute to this:

  • Neurological disorders: Conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or other neurological disorders can weaken the muscles involved in swallowing and the gag reflex, making aspiration more likely.
  • Dysphagia: This is a condition characterized by difficulty swallowing. Those with dysphagia are at increased risk of aspiration as food or liquid can enter the airway instead of the esophagus.
  • Sedation or general anesthesia: When a person is sedated for surgery or is under the effect of general anesthesia, their reflexes are often impaired, which increases the risk of aspiration.
  • Severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Those with severe GERD may aspirate stomach acid into their airways, which can lead to a type of pneumonia known as aspiration pneumonia.
  • Age: Older adults may have weakened swallowing reflexes or may have other health conditions that increase their risk of aspiration.
    Conditions affecting consciousness: Alcohol intoxication, drug overdose, and certain illnesses can affect consciousness and impair the body’s gag and swallow reflexes, leading to aspiration.

What are the symptoms of Aspiration?

Symptoms of aspiration can vary depending on the amount and type of material that has been aspirated, and can range from mild to severe. Symptoms may include:

  • Coughing or wheezing: This is often the body’s immediate response to aspiration, as it attempts to expel the foreign material from the airway.
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath: Aspirated material can block the airway or cause inflammation, making it hard to breathe.
  • Fever: Fever can be a sign of an infection such as aspiration pneumonia, which can occur if bacteria-laden material was aspirated.
  • Cyanosis (blue coloration of the skin, particularly around the lips and fingertips): This can occur if the airway is blocked, leading to a lack of oxygen.
  • Chest pain or discomfort: This may be caused by damage or irritation to the lungs or airway.

How to prevent Aspiration?

Preventing aspiration largely involves managing the risk factors. This might involve dietary modifications, altering body position while eating, and receiving therapy for swallowing disorders.Preventing aspiration is often focused on managing its risk factors:

  • Swallowing therapy: This can be helpful for individuals with dysphagia. A speech-language pathologist can provide exercises and techniques to improve swallowing function.
  • Positioning: For people who have difficulty swallowing or a decreased level of consciousness, altering body position during feeding can help reduce the risk of aspiration. This can include sitting upright while eating and not lying flat for several minutes after eating.
  • Diet modification: Certain foods or liquids may be more likely to be aspirated. A dietitian can provide guidance on making dietary changes to reduce the risk of aspiration.
  • Maintain good oral hygiene: This can reduce the amount of bacteria that can potentially be aspirated and cause pneumonia.
  • Managing underlying conditions: If a person has a condition that increases their risk of aspiration, such as GERD or a neurological disorder, managing these conditions can also help reduce the risk of aspiration.

How is Aspiration treated?

Treatment for aspiration depends on the severity and the cause of the aspiration:

  • Removal of the aspirated material: If a large object has been aspirated and is blocking the airway, it may need to be removed, potentially via a procedure called bronchoscopy where a thin tube is inserted into the airways to remove the foreign object.
  • Antibiotics: If aspiration leads to pneumonia, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the infection.
  • Oxygen therapy: In cases where aspiration has caused significant respiratory distress, supplemental oxygen or even mechanical ventilation may be needed.
  • Swallowing therapy: As mentioned above, swallowing therapy can be useful in preventing aspiration, but it can also be part of the treatment for recurrent aspiration.
  • Surgery: In rare cases, if aspiration continues to occur and other treatments have not been successful, surgery may be considered. This could involve procedures to prevent stomach contents from backing up into the esophagus or to alter the anatomy of the airway.

Aspiration during Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)

Aspiration can have a direct connection with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in a few ways:

  1. During the event of cardiac arrest: When an individual goes into cardiac arrest and loses consciousness, their protective airway reflexes also become compromised. This makes the individual more susceptible to aspiration, particularly if they vomit, which can happen in response to severe medical events.
  2. During the performance of CPR: If the individual receiving CPR vomits (a possible reaction to the chest compressions), it could potentially enter their lungs if not promptly cleared. This is why it’s crucial for those performing CPR to turn the individual onto their side to help clear the airway if vomiting occurs.
  3. After successful CPR: Patients who have been successfully resuscitated after a cardiac arrest are at a heightened risk of aspiration, particularly if they have been intubated or are still unconscious. Their protective airway reflexes may be impaired due to their medical condition or sedation. Therefore, in the hospital setting, these patients often require careful airway management to prevent aspiration.

In the context of CPR training, understanding aspiration is essential because maintaining a clear airway is a critical part of effective resuscitation. If a person becomes unresponsive and is not breathing normally, it’s important to begin CPR and also call for emergency medical assistance immediately.

Remember, it is important to consult a healthcare professional if you are experiencing symptoms of aspiration. They can provide the most accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations.


  1. WebMD. (n.d.). What is Aspiration? Retrieved from
  2. Cedars-Sinai. (n.d.). Aspiration from Dysphagia. Retrieved from
  3. Wikipedia contributors. (2023, May 25). Aspiration. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from