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Aspiration Pneumonia

What is anaerobic pneumonia?

Aspiration pneumonia, also called anaerobic pneumonia, is an infection of the lungs caused by bacteria.

The infection is usually not contagious.

How does it occur?

The bacteria that cause this disease are a type called anaerobic bacteria. These bacteria live best in places that have little or no oxygen, such as the mouth and intestine. They can enter your lungs if you accidentally breathe food, saliva, or vomit into your lungs.

Aspiration pneumonia often occurs in people who:

  • have mouth and gum disease
  • have been unconscious
  • have problems with swallowing
  • abuse drugs or alcohol.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of aspiration pneumonia are:

  • fever
  • feeling short of breath
  • cough that brings up sputum from the lungs
  • bad-smelling sputum
  • weight loss.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will review your symptoms and examine you. You will probably have these tests:

  • blood tests, including a sample of blood from an artery to check how well your lungs are getting oxygen into your blood (arterial blood gas test).
  • lab tests of a sputum sample (a sample of mucus, also called phlegm, coughed up from deep in your lungs)
  • chest X-ray.

If your provider thinks you may have an abscess (a collection of pus) in the lung, you may need a CT scan of your chest.

Sometimes it is necessary to get a sample of fluid from deep in the lungs for lab tests. The two main ways of doing this are:

  • Thoracentesis. After numbing the area, your healthcare provider inserts a needle through a space between your ribs and draws out some fluid.
  • Bronchoscopy. Your provider passes a bronchoscope down your throat and into the airways leading to the lungs. A bronchoscope is a thin, flexible, lighted tube. Your provider can then look at your airways and get a sample of fluid or tissue from your lungs. You will be given medicine to keep you from feeling pain during the procedure.

If you have a swallowing problem, you may have swallowing tests to check on the cause and severity of the problem.

How is it treated?

Aspiration pneumonia is usually treated with intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Depending on how ill you are, this may be done at home or at the hospital. Once you start to get better, your healthcare provider may switch you to oral medicine. This type of pneumonia often needs several weeks of treatment with an antibiotic.

If your chest X-ray shows a lot of fluid or pus in your lungs, you may need to have a drainage tube inserted through your chest wall. The tube drains infected material from your lungs. The tube will be removed when the drainage stops and your chest X-ray shows improvement.

How long will the effects last?

With treatment, you may recover in 1 to 4 weeks. If you are over 60 years old or have other medical problems, it may take longer to feel normal.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Finish the full course of the antibiotic treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Rest until you no longer have a fever, chest pain, or shortness of breath.
  • Drink more liquids (water or tea) every day to help you cough up mucus more easily unless your provider says you need to limit fluids.
  • Cough up lung secretions as much as possible. Use cough medicine only if your provider recommends it.
  • Use a humidifier to put more moisture in the air. Avoid steam vaporizers because they can cause burns. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean, as recommended in the manufacturer's instructions. It's important to keep bacteria and fungi from growing in the water container.
  • Ask your provider about taking aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen for fever or chest pain.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days for any reason.
    • Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
  • Use a heating pad on a low setting to reduce chest pain. Be careful not to fall asleep while you are using the heating pad.
  • Call your healthcare provider if you feel you are getting worse or if you are not getting better in 2 to 3 days.

How can I help prevent aspiration pneumonia?

If you have a swallowing problem, you can learn ways to eat and drink that avoid choking and help keep you from breathing in food or saliva. Ask your healthcare provider about seeing an occupational therapist or other specialist. They can teach you or your family how you can get the nutrition you need while limiting the risk of choking.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-28
Last reviewed: 2010-07-06
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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