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Aspiration is when something enters the airway or lungs by accident. It may be food, liquid, or some other material. This can cause serious health problems, such as pneumonia. Aspiration can happen when a person has trouble swallowing normally. This is known as dysphagia.
When you swallow food, it passes from your mouth down into your throat. This is called the pharynx. From there, the food moves down through a long tube (esophagus) and into your stomach. This journey is made possible by a series of actions from the muscles in these areas. If you have dysphagia, the muscles don’t work normally. They cause problems with the swallowing process.
The pharynx is also part of the system that brings air into your lungs. When you breathe, air enters your mouth and moves into the pharynx. The air then goes down into your main airway (trachea) and into your lungs. A flap of tissue called the epiglottis sits over the top of the trachea. This flap blocks food and drink from going down into the trachea when you swallow. But in some cases, food or drink can enter the trachea. It may go down as you swallow. Or it may come back up from the stomach. A person with dysphagia is much more likely to aspirate.
Dysphagia is more common in older adults. Stroke is a very common cause of both dysphagia and aspiration. About half of people who have had a stroke also have dysphagia. About half of people with dysphagia have aspiration. About a third of these people will need treatment for pneumonia at some point.
Aspiration from dysphagia is caused when the muscles don’t work normally in the throat. Different medical conditions can lead to this, such as:
When a person has dysphagia, aspiration is always a risk. You may be at risk for aspiration from dysphagia if you have any of these medical conditions:
Aspiration from dysphagia can cause signs and symptoms such as:
Signs and symptoms can happen right after eating. Or they may happen over time. You may not have all of these signs and symptoms. Your signs and symptoms may depend on how often and how much food or drink you aspirate.
Some people who aspirate do not have any signs or symptoms. This is called silent aspiration.
You will need to be checked for aspiration from dysphagia if you have signs or symptoms. You may also need to be checked if you have had a stroke or other health problem that can cause trouble swallowing. If your health care provider thinks you may be aspirating, you may be told to not eat or drink until you are tested.
Your health care provider will ask about your medical history and symptoms. This may be done by a speech-language pathologist (SLP). The SLP will try to find out if you have problems with the lower or upper part of your swallowing muscles. The SLP may ask about what foods or drink cause problems, and when your symptoms occur.
You may have a physical exam. This may include an exam of your teeth, lips, jaws, tongue, and cheeks. You may be asked to move these areas in certain ways and make certain sounds. Your SLP may also test how you swallow different types of liquids and solids.
You may also need one or more tests. These can help to find the cause of your dysphagia. Tests are often very helpful in showing cases of silent aspiration. The test may include:
Your health care provider will try to treat the cause of your dysphagia. This may include using medications. In some cases, surgery may be able to treat the cause of dysphagia.
The symptoms of dysphagia also need to be managed. This may include doing things such as:
As you recover, you may need to use fewer of these methods. Dysphagia after a stroke may improve greatly over time.
You may still be at high risk of aspiration even with these methods. If this is the case, you may need to use a feeding tube for a period of time to prevent aspiration.
A major complication of aspiration is harm to the lungs. When food, drink, or stomach contents make its way into your lungs, it can damage the tissues there. The damage can sometimes be severe. Aspiration also increases your risk of pneumonia. This is an infection of the lungs that causes fluid to build up in the lungs. Pneumonia needs to be treated with antibiotics. In some cases, it may cause death.
Other possible complications from dysphagia include:
These problems can reduce your level of independence. They may also cause or lengthen a stay in the hospital.
You can reduce the risk of aspiration by:
Let your doctor know right away if you think that you may have a problem with dysphagia or aspiration. It should be treated as soon as possible.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
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