HealthSheets™


Treatment for Aspiration from Dysphagia

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 is known as dysphagia.

Types of treatment

Your healthcare provider will try to treat the cause of your dysphagia. The type of treatment will depend on what caused your dysphagia. This may include using medicines. In some cases, surgery may be able to treat the cause of dysphagia. You might also be referred to a speech or swallowing specialist. 

You may also need to manage the symptoms of dysphagia. This may include doing things such as:

  • Changing your diet. You may need to make liquids thicker or not have liquids.

  • Changing your position while eating. For example, you may need to eat sitting upright, tilt your head back, or bend your head forward.

  • Not eating in bed

  • Eating smaller bites of food

  • Eating with someone watching you

  • Not talking while eating

  • Not being distracted during meals

  • Eating when you are most alert

  • Using tools such as straws

  • Doing exercises to strengthen your lips and tongue

  • Using special swallowing techniques

As you recover, you may need to use fewer of these methods. Dysphagia after a stroke may improve greatly over time.

You may still be at high risk for aspiration even with these methods. If this is the case, you may need to use a feeding tube for a period of time to prevent aspiration.

What happens if you don’t get treated?

A major complication of aspiration is harm to the lungs. When food, drink, or stomach contents make their way into your lungs, they can damage the tissues there. The damage can sometimes be severe. Aspiration also increases your risk for pneumonia. This is an infection of the lungs that causes fluid to build up in the lungs. Pneumonia needs to be treated with antibiotics. In some cases, it may cause death.

Other possible complications from dysphagia include:

  • Dehydration

  • Malnutrition

  • Weight loss

  • Increased risk for other illness

These problems can reduce your level of independence. They may also cause or lengthen a stay in the hospital.

Preventing aspiration from dysphagia

You can help prevent aspiration by:

  • Taking good care of your mouth and teeth

  • Getting dental treatment, such as dentures, when needed

  • Taking medicines as advised

  • Stopping smoking

  • Using good posture when eating and drinking

  • Doing oral exercises as advised by the speech-language pathologist

  • Making changes to your diet as advised by the speech-language pathologist

  • Asking your healthcare provider for other advice to prevent aspiration in your case

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