What Is Aspiration?

Senior Woman Eating Yogurt

What Happens When You Aspirate?

Aspiration means you’re breathing foreign objects into your airways. Usually, it’s food, saliva, or stomach contents when you swallow, vomit, or experience heartburn. This is common in older adults, infants, and people who have trouble swallowing or controlling their tongue.

Most of the time aspiration won’t cause symptoms. You may experience a sudden cough as your lungs try to clear out the substance. Some people may wheeze, have trouble breathing, or have a hoarse voice after they eat, drink, vomit, or experience heartburn. You may have chronic aspiration if this occurs frequently.

What Causes Aspiration?

Some people refer to this as food “going down the wrong way.” This can happen due to reduced tongue control or poor swallowing reflexes. The average person can usually cough out a foreign object before it enters the lungs. People who experience aspiration tend to have problems with swallowing due to:

Cause Result
reduced tongue control This can fail to trigger the swallowing reflex. It tends to cause aspiration of liquids.
abnormal swallow reflex Without a swallow reflex, the food can roll and fall into the airway.
neurological disorders Some neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, cause reduced tongue control.
esophageal disorders These conditions affect the throat and swallowing abilities. They include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), dysphagia, and throat cancer.
throat surgery People who’ve had surgery or a condition that affects their larynx may have trouble swallowing. If the larynx doesn’t close tightly, food or liquids can enter the windpipe.
dental problems This can interfere with chewing or swallowing reflexes.

Silent vs. Overt Aspiration

Symptoms of aspiration usually appear after eating, drinking, vomiting, or an episode of heartburn. They can be silent or overt.

Silent aspiration usually has no symptoms and people aren’t aware that fluids or stomach contents have entered their lungs. Overt aspiration will usually cause sudden, noticeable symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, or a hoarse voice.

Silent aspiration tends to occur in people with impaired senses. In these cases, drooling or changes in the sound of their breathing and talking may be clues of swallowing difficulties.

Make an appointment with the doctor if you or someone you know experiences these symptoms after eating, drinking, vomiting, or an episode of heartburn, especially if they:

  • have a neurological condition
  • recently had throat surgery
  • have throat cancer
  • problems with chewing or swallowing

What Are the Complications of Aspiration?

Aspiration increases your risk for aspiration pneumonia. This is a condition where pneumonia develops after you’ve inhaled bacteria (through food, drink, saliva, or vomit) into your lungs. Too much liquid in your lungs can also result in a pulmonary edema, which puts a strain on your lungs.

In most cases, you won’t know you’ve developed pneumonia or pulmonary edema until you experience other symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing with mucus, and more.

What Increases Your Risk?

People with health problems that affect swallowing are at a higher risk for aspirating. These health conditions include:

  • impaired consciousness
  • lung disease
  • seizure
  • stroke
  • dental problems
  • dementia
  • swallowing dysfunction
  • impaired mental status
  • certain neurologic diseases
  • radiation therapy to the head and neck
  • heartburn
  • GERD

 

If you or a loved one is experiencing aspiration, consult with your healthcare provider and see if feeding therapy is right for you. If so, contact Christine Wilson today to schedule an appointment!

This information and more can be found on healthline.

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