What is aspiration?

The term "aspiration" is used in two different medical senses. In the first sense, it refers to pulmonary aspiration, in which people suck foreign bodies into their tracheas and lungs, or cause foreign bodies to form, such as from a ventilator. In the second sense, aspiration is a type of medical procedure in which matter is absorbed or removed. The intended meaning is usually clear from the context.

Pulmonary aspiration can be very dangerous. A form of pulmonary aspiration can occur when people vomit and some of the vomit enters the lungs. People can also inhale food or drinks, or inhale foreign bodies such as dust in the air. Inhalation of foreign bodies causes irritation to the delicate tissues of the lungs and can lead to inflammation and a condition called aspiration pneumonia. Treatment for patients who have aspirated something depends on what it is and other factors.

The risk of aspiration is the key issue behind why people are advised to refrain from eating before general surgery. The concern is that the patient could vomit during or immediately after surgery, and could be at risk of aspirating some of the vomit. Aspiration is also a concern when people fall unconscious as a result of drug overdose, injury, or alcohol use, which is one reason people should not be left alone in these situations.

Aspiration as a medical procedure can be done in many ways. In an aspiration biopsy, for example, a needle is used to access a fluid for sampling, and the fluid is drawn into the needle by pulling back on the plunger. This technique could be used to obtain a clean urine sample from the bladder, remove a sample of bone marrow, or remove fluid from an abscess. Aspiration can also be used to remove mucus from the nose and mouth, to draw blood from a surgical site, or to remove fluid collections in the body.

For some aspiration procedures, the patient may be given anesthesia because it can be painful. In other cases, anesthesia is not required. For example, a doctor using a bulb syringe to remove mucus from a baby's nose does not need to provide analgesia because the procedure should not be painful, while a doctor taking a bone marrow biopsy needs to use an anesthetic so that the Needle insertion is not unbearable for the patient.

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