Aspiration pneumonia - patient education

Aspiration pneumonia - patient education

Oak Valley Health's patient education pages share the skills, knowledge, and habits patients and families need to know to cope with a daily health issue. We hope this information can influence patient behaviour to improve health outcomes and provide you with a sense of control and autonomy.

Learn more about the risks, causes, and treatment of aspiration pneumonia

What is aspiration pneumonia?

Aspiration pneumonia is an infection that develops as a result of pulmonary aspiration. When you inhale a large amount of food, liquid, saliva or gastric contents, it can go into your lungs. This is known as pulmonary aspiration.

What can cause aspiration pneumonia?

Aspiration pneumonia can arise if food, liquid or saliva is inhaled.  If gastric contents are inhaled into the lungs, this can result in aspiration pneumonitis.  Both are serious and potentially fatal conditions which make it difficult to breathe, and cause significant coughing. 

Who is at risk of developing an aspiration pneumonia?


  • Having a condition which causes a swallowing disorder, such as:
    • Neurological disorders (e.g. stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis)
    • Structural changes (e.g. head and neck cancer, radiation to the head and neck)
    • Respiratory disorders (e.g. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
What increases the risks?


  • Volume of aspirated material
  • Characteristics of what is aspirated (e.g. bacterial load, liquid versus particulate matter, pH level)
  • Frequency of aspiration events
  • Integrity of the immune system
  • Dependency for oral care or oral feeding
  • Having multiple decayed teeth
  • Having multiple medications and having teeth
  • Currently smoking
  • Having multiple medical diagnoses and having teeth
What are the common signs and symptoms of aspiration pneumonia?


  • Choking or coughing while eating or drinking
  • Persistent cough
  • Difficulty breathing, such as wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Being fatigued

Note: These symptoms are common with many respiratory diseases/disorders. Please confirm your diagnosis with your primary care doctor.

How is aspiration pneumonia treated?





  • Medicine to reduce:
    • Fever
    • Pain
    • Inflammation
  • Breathing assistance and oxygen therapy
  • Thoracentesis
  • Diet texture modifications
  • Managing swallowing impairment (e.g., feeding strategies, swallowing exercises)
If you have been diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia, please seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing any of the following:
  • Worsening shortness of breath, wheezing, or difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
Where can I get more information?

Aspiration Pneumonia - Canadian Patient Safety Institute

Reference: Aspiration Pneumonia. (2021, May 27). Elsevier Inc: ClinicalKey for Nursing. Retrieved from here.