Aspiration pneumonia
and Parkinson's

A contribution by Jürgen Zender


Aspiration pneumonia is considered one of the three most likely causes of death in Parkinson's disease, so as frightening as it may be, it is important to know about it. This type of pneumonia occurs when food or drink enters the lungs. How can this happen? There are two ways: Firstly, while eating or drinking, when some of the food or liquid consumed goes “down the wrong tube”, which leads to coughing. If the cough is not enough, food and fluid can enter the lungs.

Another way occurs when you feel the need to burp after swallowing. When you burp, some of the food you just consumed comes up, but not all of it, and is instead drained into the lungs. Technically, the problem is that the epiglottis, a flap of skin at the back of the tongue, is not doing its job. It's actually supposed to cover the entrance to the trachea so that nothing solid or liquid gets into the lungs. If the epiglottis fails to perform this essential task, pneumonia results along with the trapped food.

Aspiration pneumonia is defined as a type of lung infection caused by a relatively large amount of material from the stomach or mouth entering the lungs. Common symptoms include fever and a relatively rapid onset cough. Complications may include lung abscesses, acute respiratory distress syndrome, pleural empyema, and parapneumonic effusion.

If you notice food and drink rising from the stomach and being diverted into the windpipe, you should avoid certain foods that are often associated with this condition. These include citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes and tomato-based products, spicy foods, fried and fatty foods, carbonated and caffeinated drinks, chocolate and alcoholic drinks.

A final warning: The reported prevalence of dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) in Parkinson's disease patients varies between 20% and 100% due to differences in the methods used to assess swallowing function. Unlike some medical problems, such as a stroke, dysphagia worsens as Parkinson's disease progresses. Aspiration pneumonia was the most common reason for emergency department visits in Parkinson's disease patients with disease duration of more than five years, and pneumonia is a leading cause of death.


Subject Description
Aspiration pneumonia A type of pneumonia caused by inhaling food or liquid into the lungs.
Causes epiglottis dysfunction; Food/liquid 'goes down the wrong tube'.
Symptoms Fever and rapid onset of cough.
complications Lung abscesses, acute respiratory distress syndrome, pleural empyema, parapneumonic effusion.
Risk factors Certain foods and drinks that increase the risk (e.g. citrus fruits, tomato products, spicy foods, carbonated drinks).
Prävention Avoidance of certain foods and drinks, awareness of swallowing risks.
Importance for Parkinson's patients Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) is a common problem that increases as the disease progresses; Aspiration pneumonia is a leading cause of death.

Stay tuned.


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