Definition of Aspiration

aspirationAspiration is drawing foreign matter, often food or drink, into the airways (trachea and bronchi).

The cough reflex typically activates to expel the matter, though may not succeed if inhalation draws the matter deep into the respiratory tract or the cough reflex is weak.

Food, drink, and other substances that coughing does not expel can lodge in the airway to create a partial or complete obstruction.

Aspiration is potentially life-threatening and may require emergency intervention such as the Heimlich maneuver. A doctor should evaluate the condition of the lungs when aspiration occurs.

Material that makes its way deep into the lungs is likely to draw bacteria and fluid to the site, establishing inflammation, edema, pneumonia, or lung abscess. Physical movement such as sitting, standing, and walking may help the respiratory tract propel the substance outward, while inactivity allows the matter to settle into the lungs. Near drowning often results in aspiration of water into the lungs.


A chest x-ray typically shows the site of inflammation and fluid collection. Treatment may require bronchoscopy to retrieve the object and antibiotic medications to treat infection.

Aspiration pneumonia is a potentially serious condition, particularly in the elderly, infants, and debilitated people who cannot easily move around or who may have trouble with the natural mechanisms that protect the airway, resulting in foreign matter getting into the lungs. Aspiration pneumonia develops when the accumulated fluid becomes infected or interferes with the ability of the lungs to oxygenate the blood.

See also BRONCHUS.

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