Can you die from silent aspirations?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Can you die from silent aspirations?

Expert Answer

Jennifer Serafin, N.P. is a registered nurse and geriatric nurse practitioner at the Jewish Homes for the Aged in San Francisco.

The answer is yes. Silent aspiration causes a person to swallow food and fluids into their lungs. Normally, when you swallow something incorrectly, a healthy person would need to cough this out, like when you swallow something and it goes "down the wrong pipe". In some diseases, like strokes or Parkinson's, people lose the ability to swallow well, and the food/fluids will go into the lungs without any cough or symptoms. This is where the "silent" aspiration term comes from.

Food in your lungs can cause a very aggressive pneumonia that can be difficult to treat. This is because food carries many different kinds of bacteria, which is unlike what would normally cause "normal" pneumonia. Also, it can cause thick phlegm, fevers, and shortness of breath, all of which can be too much for someone who is very frail to survive.