What Happens When You Aspirate Food?

Updated July 20, 2017

Our lungs are vital to our survival, but they are vulnerable. Sometimes food, liquid, vomit or other debris is inhaled, or aspirated, into the lungs, obstructing the pathways that deliver precious oxygen to the rest of our bodies. Some aspirations are mild and leave no evidence after a coughing fit expels them, but some can be life-threatening.

Aspiration Suffocation

This type of aspiration, fortunately rare, is the result of someone being incapacitated, such as intoxicated or immobilised after an accident. The person vomits, and without the ability to clear the mess from their mouth and airways, the person literally suffocates on his own vomit. Some famous cases of this happening were Jimi Hendrix, Bonn Scott from AC/DC and Steve Bonham from Led Zeppelin. It is most commonly associated with drug or alcohol use, but can also happen to people who are unable to swallow properly because of other issues, such as Alzheimer's or coma.

Aspiration Pneumonia

Aspiration pneumonia is inflammation created in the lungs and airways by breathing in foreign material, often food or beverage, into the lungs. This can lead to lung abscesses and an inflammatory reaction that includes coughing and difficulty breathing. An all-out lung infection would be categorised as pneumonia. Aspiration can be caused by the side effects of anaesthesia, poor feeding skills in an infant, or accidental choking.

Aspiration and Chronic Lung Ailments

People who have gastric esophageal reflux disease, or GERD, have a higher than average incidence of aspirating foreign materials into their lungs. The disadvantage to these patients is that is bile, or stomach acid, is being aspirated into the lungs. Bile is acid that creates inflammation and damages the soft lung tissues. This can create long-term lung ailments such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Perforation of Lung Tissue

The odds against this happening are very high, but sometimes when a person aspirates something that has been eaten, a sharp or hard item in the aspiration can penetrate the wall of the lung and become lodged there. Over time,or the patient may feel they have something stuck in their throat or airway that does not belong there. When the discomfort becomes unbearable, a visit to the doctor usually reveals the culprit. Leaving it can allow the material to embed itself further into the lung tissue and create serious infection.

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About the Author

Nadelee Kendrick has been writing professionally since 1981. Her work has been published in "McCalls," "Readers Digest," "Woman's Day" and "Woman's World." Kendrick earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University, Chico.