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Aspiration Syndromes Treatment & Management

  • Author: Cecilia P Mikita, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Michael R Bye, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 18, 2014

Medical Care

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  • Conservative therapy is the initial treatment of choice to prevent aspiration syndromes and often results in significant improvement in respiratory symptoms. Position infants in the prone or upright position. Avoid placing infants younger than 6 months in a seated position for approximately 90 minutes after a feed. Do not feed the infant within 90 minutes before bedtime. Elevation of the head of the bed approximately 30° may help, although young infants may slide down the bed during the night. Dietary modifications include thickening feeds for infants; breastfeeding; decreasing volume of feeds (10-20 mL/kg per feeding); and feeding small, frequent meals. Patients with swallowing dysfunction may benefit from certain food consistencies, positioning, and adaptive feeding equipment or utensils.
  • The management of an acute aspiration event consists of conservative management, observation, and possible antibiotic therapy. Initially, the patient's upper airway should be cleared and endotracheal intubation should be considered if the patient is unable to protect his airway. Close monitoring in an inpatient setting is recommended for at least 48 hours. Initially, empiric antibiotic therapy is not recommended, even if fever, clinical, laboratory, or radiographic findings are present. Selection of resistant organisms with the use of empiric, broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy is always a concern, especially in an uncomplicated chemical pneumonitis picture. If the patient fails to improve after 48 hours, the addition of broad-spectrum antibiotics is recommended.
  • A second or third generation cephalosporin is appropriate to cover potential gram-positive flora from the oropharynx and gram-negative organisms from the GI tract. Anaerobic coverage is not routinely required initially. Limited and controversial data on the role of corticosteroids in the management of acute aspiration events are available. Numerous animal studies and clinical trials fail to demonstrate a significant beneficial effect of corticosteroids after acute aspiration events. Based on these data, routine administration of systemic corticosteroids is not recommended.

Surgical Care

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  • The American Gastroenterological Association has published clinical practice guidelines regarding surgical intervention for oral pharyngeal dysphagia.
  • Surgical management with Nissen fundoplication and/or gastrojejunostomy is generally not first-line therapy for gastroesophageal reflux (GER) lung disease but may be appropriate for some individuals with neurological impairment.[17] Surgical treatment of curable anatomic disorders, such as malrotation, is paramount.
  • Patients who are neurologically impaired, have GER, and require a feeding tube are usually initially treated with fundoplication and gastrostomy. However, a percutaneous endoscopic gastrojejunostomy may be an intermediate step before surgical intervention.
  • Several surgical procedures have been tried as an adjunct to fundoplication and gastrostomy to prevent direct aspiration. Total laryngectomy, glottic closure, tracheostomy, and injection of Teflon into the vocal cords have all been tried in patients with persistent direct aspiration.
  • Laryngotracheal separation, with or without end-to-side laryngoesophagectomy, has been tried more recently in children with neurological impairment who have intractable aspiration pneumonia as an adjunct to fundoplication and gastrostomy.[18] In this procedure, the larynx and trachea are permanently divided; therefore, aspiration can never occur, but phonation is sacrificed.


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  • A primary care provider can successfully provide routine medical care for children with aspiration syndromes.
  • Consultation with a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist is recommended to assess swallowing dysfunction. Oral structure and function, clinical signs of safe swallowing, and positioning should be assessed. Compensatory feeding strategies should be implemented to protect the airway.
  • Refer patients to a pediatric pulmonologist and/or pediatric gastroenterologist if the patient does not respond to conservative or simple medical therapy or if the ordered studies are equivocal.
  • A pediatric neurologist should thoroughly evaluate patients with possible neuromuscular disorders.
  • A pediatric allergist/immunologist and/or pediatric gastroenterologist should be consulted if eosinophilic esophagitis is considered.


See the list below:

  • Several dietary modifications can be initiated to decrease the risk of aspiration. Restricting fluids, decreasing volume and increasing frequency of feeds, breastfeeding, providing texture-modified diets, thickening feeds, and not feeding within 90 minutes of nap or bedtime may decrease GER and aspiration.
  • Special feeding equipment or utensils and positioning may also help patients with swallowing dysfunction or anatomical defect.
  • In certain cases, transpyloric feedings may be necessary to decrease the risk of aspiration.
  • In addition, avoidance of certain foods (eg, caffeine, fatty meals, carbonated beverages, peppermint, citrus) may decrease GER in older children and adults.
  • If the volume of aspiration is greater than 10% of the bolus feed, enteral feeds may not be appropriate.


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  • Simple modifications in activity help decrease incidence of physiologic and pathologic GER.
  • Elevation of the head of the bed approximately 30° and avoidance of seated devices for approximately 90 minutes after feeding may decrease GER and aspiration.
  • Avoidance of prolonged use of seated devices in very young infants may be beneficial.
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Cecilia P Mikita, MD, MPH Associate Program Director, Allergy-Immunology Fellowship, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Staff Allergist/Immunologist, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Cecilia P Mikita, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Charles Callahan, DO Professor, Chief, Department of Pediatrics and Pediatric Pulmonology, Tripler Army Medical Center

Charles Callahan, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians, American Thoracic Society, Association of Military Surgeons of the US, Christian Medical and Dental Associations

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Michael R Bye, MD Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine; Attending Physician, Pediatric Pulmonary Division, Women's and Children's Hospital of Buffalo

Michael R Bye, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Chest Physicians, American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Thomas Scanlin, MD Chief, Division of Pulmonary Medicine and Cystic Fibrosis Center, Department of Pediatrics, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

Thomas Scanlin, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Society for Pediatric Research, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, American Thoracic Society, Society for Pediatric Research

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Heidi Connolly, MD Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry; Director, Pediatric Sleep Medicine Services, Strong Sleep Disorders Center

Heidi Connolly, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Thoracic Society, and Society of Critical Care Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Chest radiograph of a child with a tracheostomy and recurrent aspiration reveals patchy infiltrates and increased interstitial markings.
Lateral chest radiograph of the same child as in the previous image reveals increased interstitial markings and patchy and perihilar infiltrates.
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