What Should You Do When Someone Is Showing Signs of Food Aspiration?

Contact a doctor immediately if someone shows signs of aspiration, such as rapid or very slow breathing, severe coughing after eating or drinking, a hoarse voice, fever, and a chronic cough that produces phlegm with bits of food or a pungent odor, suggests Baylor Scott & White Health. Doctors may perform a chest X-ray or bronchoscopy to confirm the occurrence of aspiration.

Aspiration refers to the inhalation of food, liquid, stomach acid, vomit or other objects into the lungs, causing potential complications such as a lung infection or pus accumulation, explains Baylor Scott & White Health. Many conditions cause aspiration, including an impaired gag reflex, acid reflux, and lower awareness level resulting from seizures, neurological illness, stroke or brain injury.

To diagnose aspiration, doctors order a chest X-ray to view the lungs, or they perform a bronchoscopy, which involves inserting a thin, camera-equipped tube into the mouth or nose to access the lungs and acquire a tissue sample or culture, reports Baylor Scott & White Health. A bronchoscopy also enables doctors to remove an inhaled object.

To prevent aspiration in a patient with a high risk of it, let the patient sit upright while eating or drinking, and advise him to eat slowly and chew properly, notes Baylor Scott & White Health. Provide only small amounts of food, and allow the patient to sit upright for 30 minutes after each meal.