March 13, 2022

Aspiration – getting something in the lungs – can happen with swallowing problems.

Aspiration is when something enters your 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 you have trouble swallowing normally. This condition is called dysphagia. 

When you swallow food, it passes from your mouth down into your throat (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. 

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 (the epiglottis) sits over the top of the trachea. This flap blocks food and drink from going down into the trachea when you swallow. 

Understanding Complex Airway Disorders

Download our guide to learn about various disorders and their symptoms, diagnosis for complex airway disorders, and surgical and nonsurgical treatment options.

What causes aspiration?

Aspiration from dysphagia is caused when the muscles in your throat don’t work normally. This lets food or drink enter the trachea when you swallow. This can happen as food goes down when you swallow. Or it can happen if food comes back up from your stomach. 

When a person has dysphagia, aspiration is always a risk. This condition is often seen in older adults. You may be at risk for aspiration from dysphagia if you have any of these health conditions: 

  • Stroke
  • Brain injury
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Severe dental problems
  • Conditions that lead to less saliva, such as Sjogren’s syndrome 
  • Mouth sores
  • Parkinson disease or other neurologic conditions 
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Blockage in the esophagus, such as a cancer growth 
  • History of radiation or surgery to treat throat cancer 

Signs and symptoms of aspiration from dysphagia

Aspiration can cause symptoms such as: 

  • Feeling of food sticking in your throat or coming back into your mouth 
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Trouble starting a swallow
  • Coughing or wheezing after eating
  • Mild chest pain or heartburn 
  • Fever 30 minutes to an hour after eating
  • Too much saliva
  • Feeling congested after eating or drinking
  • Having a wet-sounding voice during or after eating or drinking
  • Shortness of breath or tiredness while eating
  • Vomiting blood
  • Pneumonia that comes back again and again

Aspiration symptoms can happen right after eating. Or they may happen over time. You may not have all of these symptoms. They may depend on how often and how much food or drink you aspirate. 

Some people who aspirate don’t have any symptoms. This is called silent aspiration.

Diagnosing aspiration from dysphagia

You will need to be checked for aspiration from dysphagia if you have 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 provider will ask about your health history and symptoms. This may be done by a speech-language pathologist. This specialist will try to find out if you have problems with the lower or upper part of your swallowing muscles. The speech-language pathologist 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 pathologist may also conduct a swallow test for aspiration to see how you swallow different types of liquids and solids. 

You may also need one or more of the following tests. These can help to find the cause of your dysphagia. Tests are often very helpful in showing cases of silent aspiration. The tests may include: 

  • Modified barium swallow test. This is done to show if material is going into your lungs. 
  • Fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing . This test can also show if material is going into your lungs. 
  • Pharyngeal manometry. This test checks the pressure inside your esophagus.
An older couple enjoy coffee at an outdoor table.

Need help?

The specialists with Vanderbilt’s Complex Airway Reconstruction Program have the expertise to diagnose many problems with the throat, windpipe and voice box. They can work with you to develop a personalized treatment, so you can swallow, breath and speak more easily.  For an appointment, see or call 615-343-0540 for more information.

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