What Does Aspiration Mean? (2023)

Aspiration means inhaling some kind of foreign object or substance into your airway. Usually, it’s food, saliva, or stomach contents that make their way into your lungs when you swallow, vomit, or experience heartburn.

Aspiration is more common in older adults, infants, people who have trouble swallowing or controlling their tongues, and people who are intubated.

Sometimes aspiration won’t cause symptoms. This is called “silent aspiration.” You may experience a sudden cough as your lungs try to clear out the substance. Some people may wheeze, have trouble breathing, or have a hoarse voice after they eat, drink, vomit, or experience heartburn. You may have chronic aspiration if this occurs frequently.

Many times, aspiration doesn’t cause complications. Sometimes, however, it can lead to serious problems such as aspiration pneumonia, which is a lung infection. If you suspect aspiration in yourself or someone you care for, you should see your doctor.

Read on to learn what increases your risk for aspiration, complications, treatment, and more.

Some people refer to a case of aspiration as food “going down the wrong way.” This can happen due to reduced tongue control, poor swallowing reflexes, or medical devices that assist with breathing.

The average person can usually cough out a foreign object before it enters the lungs.

Most often, aspiration is due to one of the following causes:

Neuromuscular causesSome neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or advanced dementia, can cause reduced tongue control and abnormal swallow reflexes. Neurological disorders like stroke, brain injury, and intracranial tumors can also cause reduced tongue control and swallowing issues.
Esophageal disordersThese conditions affect the throat and swallowing abilities. They include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), dysphagia, and throat cancer.
Throat surgeryPeople who’ve had surgery or a condition that affects their larynx may have trouble swallowing. If the larynx doesn’t close tightly, food or liquids can enter the windpipe.
Dental problemsThis can interfere with chewing or swallowing reflexes
Medical device in airwayPeople with a nasogastric tube, surgical opening in the windpipe (tracheostomy), feeding tube, or who’ve had procedures to examine the digestive tract, are also at high risk for aspiration.

Aspiration during surgery

While you’re under general anesthesia or sedation, contents from your stomach may move up to your mouth and enter your trachea and lungs.

Surgical teams are prepared for these moments, but this is why it’s important to fast before surgery. Drooling after surgery might be a sign of aspiration.

(Video) Aspiration

A 2019 study out of Australia and New Zealand found that emergency procedures and the patient being over the age of 80 are two of the biggest risk factors for aspiration during surgery.

People with health problems that affect swallowing are at a higher risk of aspirating. These health conditions include:

  • impaired consciousness
  • lung disease
  • seizure
  • stroke
  • dental problems
  • dementia
  • swallowing dysfunction
  • impaired mental status
  • certain neurologic diseases
  • radiation therapy to the head and neck
  • heartburn
  • GERD

Aspiration in older adults

Older adults are also more likely to have a condition known as dysphagia, which is difficulty swallowing. It’s common among stroke patients and adults with dementia, Parkinson’s disease, GERD, multiple sclerosis, and other neuromuscular conditions. Aspiration is one symptom of dysphagia.

Older adults who need a feeding tube are also at higher risk of aspiration.

Symptoms of aspiration usually appear after eating, drinking, vomiting, or an episode of heartburn.

Silent aspiration usually has no symptoms, and people aren’t always aware that fluids or stomach contents have entered their lungs. Overt aspiration will usually cause sudden, noticeable symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, or a hoarse voice.

Silent aspiration can occur in people with sensory differences or who are under institutional care. In these cases, drooling or changes in the sound of their breathing and talking may be clues of swallowing difficulties.

Make an appointment with the doctor if you or someone you know experiences these symptoms after eating, drinking, vomiting, or an episode of heartburn, especially if they:

  • have a neurological condition
  • recently had throat surgery
  • have throat cancer
  • have problems with chewing or swallowing
  • have a fever
  • have difficulty breathing

When to see a doctor

(Video) Aspiration | meaning of Aspiration

If you notice someone choking or having trouble breathing, it’s important to call 911 and seek emergency help immediately.

You should make an appointment to see a doctor if you have repeated symptoms that reflect difficulty swallowing, like:

  • pain while swallowing
  • choking
  • coughing up food
  • hoarseness
  • feeling like something is stuck in your throat
  • a fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C) degrees

You should also call your doctor if you frequently aspirate or regularly experience any of the following:

  • chronic chest congestion
  • wet cough
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • tiredness while eating
  • taking extra steps to clear your throat
  • coughing, choking, or gasping for air upon waking up

Symptoms don’t always occur right away. They may develop after periods of aspiration and may turn into serious complications such as lung scarring or aspiration pneumonia.

Your doctor will ask if you’ve experienced any symptoms of aspiration, including after eating. If there are no symptoms, they may do a modified barium swallow test, which looks at your esophagus.

During a barium swallow test, your doctor will ask you to swallow a liquid that shows up on the X-ray to help them determine whether you have any underlying swallowing disorders.

Other tests

Your doctor may also ask about other potential symptoms such as fever or chest pain to look for signs of pneumonia or pulmonary edema. They’ll also check for any problems with swallowing or underlying conditions such as GERD.

If they suspect aspiration has developed into another complication, they’ll order tests to see if there’s food or fluid in the lungs. These may include:

  • chest X-ray
  • sputum culture
  • bronchoscopy
  • computed tomography (CT) scan of the chest area
  • blood work

Treatment for aspiration depends on the cause.

(Video) Aspiration | Definition of aspiration

For less severe cases, treatment may involve taking steps to stop aspiration from happening again. For some people, this may include:

  • using straws
  • eating small bites
  • keeping proper posture while eating
  • eating slowly

Some people may also benefit from dysphagia therapy, which focuses on techniques to swallow safely and efficiently.

If someone has aspiration pneumonia, they may require hospitalization. Doctors may administer antibiotics or use a ventilator to help the person breathe.

Severe cases may require surgery.

Aspiration increases your risk for aspiration pneumonia. This is a condition where pneumonia develops after inhaling non-air substances; such as food, liquid, saliva, or even foreign objects.

A similar process can occur with aspiration pneumonitis (which is the inhalation of sterile gastric contents). These two conditions can be difficult to differentiate.

Pneumonia can cause an influx of liquid in your lungs. This and injury from inhalation can result in pulmonary edema, which puts a strain on your lungs.

In most cases, you won’t know you’ve developed pneumonia or pulmonary edema until you experience other symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing with mucus, or you receive a clinical diagnosis.


Symptoms of aspiration may appear differently in children or infants. They may appear as:

  • problems feeding
  • coughing while drinking
  • arched back while feeding
  • redness around the eyes during feeding or after
  • frequent breathing issues
  • slowed growth

Risk factors

Conditions that increase the risk of aspiration in children and infants are also those that contribute to swallowing disorders. They include:

(Video) What Is Aspirating And How Do You Aspirate?

  • cleft palate
  • delayed growth because of premature birth
  • Down syndrome
  • cerebral palsy or neuromuscular diseases, such as spinal muscular atrophy

Treatment and outlook

Aspiration in children may get better over time, depending on the cause. Treating the cause will often improve aspiration. You can also help to minimize your child’s risk by:

  • making sure they have correct posture during feeding time
  • thickening liquids as recommended by your speech therapist or physician
  • practicing swallowing exercises with them
  • changing the type of food so it’s easier to swallow
  • avoiding giving a bottle to a baby who is lying down

In severe and high risk cases, your child may need a feeding tube to ensure they get enough nutrition until their condition improves.

Talk with your doctor if you think your child has problems with aspiration. It’s important to check that aspiration hasn’t developed into a complication.

Prevention tips

  • Rest before your start your meals.
  • Take small bites or cut food into smaller pieces.
  • Swallow completely before drinking.
  • Sit upright when you eat.
  • Choose food types that are easier for you to chew and swallow.
  • Practice chewing and swallowing techniques, if provided.
  • Visit your dentist on a regular basis.
  • Avoid using sedative medications or medications that dry up your saliva before eating.

Anyone can aspirate. Most people tend to cough up the content they’ve inhaled. But people with an underlying condition are at a higher risk for aspiration developing into something more serious.

The outlook for aspiration depends on the cause. For many people, swallowing therapy and eating techniques — such as softening, chopping, or pureeing solid foods — can help prevent aspiration.


What is the true meaning of aspiration? ›

Aspiration means to draw in or out using a sucking motion. It has two meanings: Breathing in a foreign object (sucking food into the airway). A medical procedure that removes something from an area of the body. These substances can be air, body fluids, or bone fragments.

What is your aspiration in life meaning? ›

They are what you hope to achieve in your professional life in the years to come. Put simply, a career aspiration is a long-term dream that you are pursuing. A career aspiration can even be accompanied by a 5-year plan. You may not have a concrete plan for achieving your occupational aspirations.

What are some good aspirations? ›

Top 5 Aspirations that You Would Love to See Fulfilled
  • Aspiration 1: Do something you have always wanted to. • ...
  • Aspiration 2: Visit a place you have never seen before. • ...
  • Aspiration 3: Achieve a goal. • ...
  • Aspiration 4: Learn a new skill. • ...
  • Aspiration 5: Stay ambitious and keep growing. •
Aug 27, 2019

How do you describe your aspirations? ›

Answer Example: My goal entering the company would be to evolve my skills in a challenging environment, work within a team, and provide efficient solutions. Within 5 years, I aspire to reach a managerial position that will allow me to make crucial decisions while applying my leadership skills.

What is your aspiration for yourself? ›

Personal aspirations are things that people want to achieve whether through their work or personal lives. Examples of aspirations in life could be a desire to gain promotion, become a manager, director, earn more money or even become an expatriate employee in another country.

How do you set career aspirations? ›

7 steps to set and achieve career goals
  1. Explore the possibilities. You may be someone who has known for a very long time exactly what occupation you aspire to. ...
  2. Compare options. ...
  3. Establish short-term goals. ...
  4. Establish long-term objectives. ...
  5. Write SMARTER career goals. ...
  6. Be flexible and measure your progress. ...
  7. Write down your goals.

What is the importance of aspiration? ›

The tangible manifestation of aspirations is goal-setting. Aspirations are important for organizations because they give people something over the horizon to aim for. Here are three questions to ask as you craft aspirations that challenge the organization in ways that lend hope as well as credibility.

What is your greatest aspiration meaning? ›

: a strong desire to achieve something high or great. an aspiration to become famous. usually plural.

What is your inspiration and aspiration? ›

We all have dreams about the future. These are our aspirations. Inspiration, on the other hand, refers to the urge to feel or do something.

What is your aspiration and motivation? ›

Motivation is quite complex. It can be summarised as “the desire to do things”. Aspiration, in this context, can be seen as a “long term hope”, or “goal”. Your aspirations can motivate you to work hard and get things done to achieve this goal, whatever it is.

What are the five aspirations? ›

The Five Aspirations. Most companies have one bottom line. At Clif Bar & Company, we are guided by five “bottom lines” or what we call our Five Aspirations: Sustaining our People, Community, Planet, Brands, and Business.

What are the three types of aspiration? ›

There are three particular classifications of aspiration syndromes that are pathologically and clinically distinct: (1) Foreign body aspiration (FBA), (2) Aspiration pneumonitis, (3) Aspiration pneumonia (Paintal and Kuschner 2007).

What's another word for career aspirations? ›

The words ambition and pretension are common synonyms of aspiration. While all three words mean "strong desire for advancement," aspiration implies a striving after something higher than oneself.

What are goals and aspirations? ›

The goal is the vehicle for your aspiration; the strategy is the vehicle for your goal. Two people with the same goal may have different aspirations; or they may have the same goal and aspiration but different strategies to achieve them. The aspiration is the deeper why behind your why.

What are 3 good goals for work? ›

10 Examples of Professional Goals For Work in 2023
  • Take a course to sharpen your skills.
  • Learn a new tool (or 5)
  • Improve your public speaking and presentations.
  • Research other departments.
  • Improve team collaboration and communication skills.
  • Build your network.
  • Research a competitor.
  • Get better at time management.
Dec 19, 2022

What is common aspiration? ›

Aspiration is a common problem that can occur in healthy or sick patients wherein pharyngeal secretions, food material, or gastric secretions enter the larynx and trachea and can descend into the lungs, causing an acute or chronic inflammatory reaction.

How do you use aspiration in a sentence? ›

  1. She talked about her hopes and aspirations.
  2. a political party that fulfils the aspirations of the British people.
  3. an aspiration for personal power.
  4. the country's aspirations to independence.
  5. aspirations towards starting his own business.

How do you answer aspiration questions? ›

Exercise: What are my career aspirations?
  1. Reflect on past work and school experiences. ...
  2. Consider your interests and passions. ...
  3. Decide whether you will answer with an aspiration of skill, leadership, or industry.
  4. Think about how this job role and company supports your aspiration. ...
  5. Practice.
Feb 21, 2023

What happens when a person aspirates? ›

What is aspiration? Aspiration happens when food, liquid, or other material enters a person's airway and eventually the lungs by accident. It can happen as a person swallows, or food can come back up from the stomach. Aspiration can lead to serious health issues such as pneumonia and chronic lung scarring.

What does aspiration mean medically? ›

Aspirate (pronounced AS-pih-rayt) refers to the act of withdrawing the fluid, tissue, or other substance through a needle. It also refers to the accidental breathing in of food or fluid into the lungs. This can cause serious problems, such as pneumonia and other lung problems.

How do you know if a patient aspirated? ›

Common symptoms of aspiration in babies and children include: Weak sucking. Red face, watery eyes, or grimacing while feeding. Breathing that speeds up or stops while feeding.

Do people survive aspiration? ›

Most people who get aspiration pneumonia and get treatment will survive. The prognosis for aspiration pneumonia also depends on your overall health and other conditions that you may have and how sick you were when you started treatment.

What to do when a patient is aspirating? ›

How is aspiration from dysphagia treated?
  1. Changing your diet (such as thickening liquids or not having liquids)
  2. Changing your position while eating (such as eating upright, tilting your head back, or bending your neck forward)
  3. Not eating in bed.
  4. Eating smaller bites of food.
  5. Eating with supervision.

What is the most common cause of aspiration? ›

Risk factors for breathing in (aspiration) of foreign material into the lungs are: Being less alert due to medicines, illness, surgery, or other reasons. Coma. Drinking large amounts of alcohol.

What are the two types of aspiration? ›

Intrinsic aspirations are those that help satisfy psychological needs. These goals play an important role in enhancing an individual's well-being. Extrinsic aspirations are those focused on achieving an instrumental outcome such as becoming rich or famous.

Is aspiration the same as choking? ›

Choking occurs when the airway is blocked by food, drink, or foreign objects. Aspiration occurs when food, drink, or foreign objects are breathed into the lungs (going down the wrong tube). It might happen during choking, but aspiration can also be silent, meaning that there is no outward sign.

Does aspiration go away? ›

You can occasionally aspirate a small amount of something and not develop serious problems. Most of the time, your body clears it out with coughing.

Can aspiration go away on its own? ›

Aspiration pneumonia is a complication of pulmonary aspiration, or the inhalation of food, liquid or vomit into the lungs. When the respiratory system is healthy and strong, pulmonary aspiration often clears up on its own.

Can aspiration be cured? ›

Treatment involves antibiotics and supportive care for breathing. Your outlook depends on your state of health prior to the event, the type of foreign material that is aspirated into your lungs, and any other conditions you might have. Most people (79 percent) will survive aspiration pneumonia.


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