What is Aspiration?

Aspiration is the act of breathing foreign objects such as food, stomach contents, vomit, or saliva. Oftentimes aspiration will feel like something, "went down the wrong tube," causing you to suddenly cough as your body tries to remove the foreign object. People may also experience difficulty breathing, a hoarse voice, or heartburn. Although aspiration is more common in infants and the elderly, it can affect people of all ages.

Causes of Aspiration

Normally, when a person swallows food or liquid, it will travel from the mouth to the throat, through the esophagus (food pipe), and into the stomach. When aspiration occurs, food or drink goes into the windpipe and/or lungs improperly instead of into the esophagus and stomach. Aspiration can be accidental, or it be the result of some type of swallowing or tongue disorder.

Most people will experience random aspiration at some point in their life, and the average person can typically cough out whatever foreign object caused the issue. However, for people who experience regular aspiration difficulties, they may be facing one or more of these issues.

  • Abnormal swallowing - can allow food to go into the airway instead of the stomach.
  • Limited tongue control - swallowing reflex may not be triggered, typically causing difficulty with liquids.
  • Previous throat surgery - may affect the larynx' ability to close tightly, allowing liquids or food into the airways.
  • Dental issues - some dental conditions may interfere with your ability to chew or swallow properly.
  • Neurological conditions - some disorders can contribute to limited tongue control.
  • Esophageal disorders - can affect the throat or your ability to swallow.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Aspiration

If a foreign object partially blocks or irritates the windpipe or lungs, aspiration symptoms will usually include one or more of the following:

  • Coughing or hacking
  • A feeling that something went down the wrong tube, or that something is stuck in your throat
  • Breathing difficulty or wheezing
  • Difficulty or painful swallowing
  • Raspy or hoarse voice

If you experience immediate symptoms such as blocked airway, difficulty breathing, or chest pain, you should seek immediate emergency medical care.

Some aspiration symptoms will take hours or days to develop. If you experience the following symptoms after aspiration, you should visit your ENT specialist:

  • Repeated coughing, or coughing up blood
  • Foul smelling mucus, or increased production of mucus
  • Fever

Treatments for Aspiration

Treatment for aspiration will vary depending on the root cause of your condition, the severity of the symptoms, and the foreign object that was inhaled.

If the foreign object still remains in your lungs, your ENT specialist may recommend a procedure called a bronchoscopy that involves a tube being inserted down your throat and into your lungs to remove the object.

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if your aspiration caused pneumonia. If your aspiration is caused by a medical condition, speech therapy may be the recommended treatment option to help improve your swallowing. If you suffer from chronic aspirations, dietary changes or tube feeding may be viable treatment options.


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