When food, liquid, saliva or vomit are inhaled, coughing usually clears the airways, explains The Merck Manual. However, if a person has an impaired swallowing or gag reflex due to stroke, impairment due to drugs or alcohol, or is too weak to cough, these foreign substances settle in the lungs.
Aspiration pneumonia is a lung infection directly caused by the inhalation of these foreign bodies, notes MedlinePlus. Symptoms are similar to other types of pneumonia and include coughing up foul smelling phlegm which may be green, bloody or streaked with pus, chest pain, wheezing, fever and fatigue. Individuals may also experience shortness of breath, excessive sweating, unpleasant breath odor and a bluish discoloration of the skin due to a lack of oxygen.
Elderly individuals are at greatest risk for aspiration pneumonia, particularly if they have a history of swallowing problems, lung disease, stroke or dental problems, states Healthline. Individuals with a history of esophageal disorders and acid reflux, anyone with reduced levels of alertness or those who have taken sedatives, narcotics or large amounts of alcohol are also at risk.
First line treatment for aspiration pneumonia involves the use of antibiotics, given orally or intravenously, according to Drugs.com. Corticosteroids may be prescribed to open up the person's airways to make breathing easier. Finally, supplemental oxygen may be prescribed to help support breathing.