What Does Aspiration Mean?

Boy choking
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Aspiration is a medical term that refers to sucking in a fluid. When you drink soda through a straw you are aspirating it into your mouth. In first aid and medical care, there are two common uses of the term that you'll see.

Aspiration of Fluid Into Airways

Aspiration may refer to getting fluids (or small solid particles) into the airways, such as your trachea or lungs. When food or liquids "go down the wrong pipe," you are experiencing aspiration.

  • People can aspirate food or fluids into their airways while eating. This is a common complication of stroke patients or head injury victims who are learning to eat again.
  • In most cases of drowning, some water is aspirated into the airways.
  • Unconscious victims who vomit may also aspirate some of the emesis into their airways.
  • Newborns who have their first bowel movement (called meconium) in the womb before birth run the risk of meconium aspiration. This is a possibly life-threatening condition, though most cases are not serious.

Aspiration is different than choking because the airway is not completely blocked. Air still flows, even if not very well. Aspirating small bits of food or fluid can cause shortness of breath, pneumonia (specifically called aspiration pneumonia), and infections of the lungs.

Aspiration is common in children and can begin with a choking episode. After one, you may notice symptoms of respiratory problems like pneumonia.

The University of Nebraska Children's Hospital notes that children with certain medical conditions are at a greater risk for aspiration. Additionally, those that have swallowing or breathing disruptions or who take longer than 30 minutes to eat a meal may be at risk. Talk to your doctor about any concerns.

Aspiration for Medical Suction

Aspiration may also refer to drawing fluid through a tube or needle and into a syringe or other suction device. This is common in a great variety of medical procedures and tests. You're likely to hear the word aspiration often in doctor's offices and hospitals.

  • Procedures that draw a bit of fluid from the body (other than from a vein) are usually referred to as aspiration procedures. This may​ include a biopsy or joint aspiration to drain fluids for analysis.
  • Clearing the airway or mouth with a suction device is called aspiration.

The next time you hear your doctor say "we're going to aspirate a little of the cyst and analyze it" you'll know what she's talking about.

Source: 

Children's Hospital & Medical Center. What Is Aspiration? University of Nebraska Medical Center. 2017.

Greenspan JS. About Meconium Aspiration. Kids Health From Nemours. 2014.

Vorvick LJ. Aspiration. U.S National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus. 2016.

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