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Aspiration: Overview

What is aspiration?

Aspiration happens when anything, such as food or liquid, is inhaled into the lungs. People sometimes describe aspiration as something "going down the wrong pipe." While everyone aspirates from time to time, most people are able to cough well enough to clear their airways.  However, if someone aspirates frequently or is not able to cough sufficiently, it can lead to respiratory problems, like pneumonia.

Aspiration is a common problem in children that is usually first observed when the child chokes or has a chronic cough, and is often followed by other respiratory symptoms.

What causes aspiration?

There are many possible causes of chronic aspiration in children. The most frequent is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or acid reflux. Reflux is common in children, especially premature infants, and usually resolves as children age without causing aspiration.

Other causes of aspiration include swallowing dysfunction, anatomical disorders such as an abnormal connection between the air tube and food tube (fistula or cleft), and neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy. When swallowing dysfunction is present with GERD, aspiration and respiratory symptoms are more likely to occur. The amount of reflux material may also be significant and cause acute or persistent respiratory symptoms. Aspiration with symptoms requires a complete evaluation by a specialized team.

Who aspirates?

While everyone aspirates occasionally, chronic aspiration can often be found in children with other health problems, including:

  • Prematurity
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Anatomic defects
  • Chronic heart disease
  • Congenital syndromes

Helpful resources

  • Medline Plus provides easy-to-understand information about aspiration based on the latest medical research, with links to pictures, related topics and other trusted sources.