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Potentially life-threatening emergency
Foreign body aspiration
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed
Potentially life-threatening emergency

Foreign body aspiration

Contributors: Michael W. Winter MD, Paritosh Prasad MD
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed


Foreign body aspiration is the inhalation of a foreign body into the airway (ie, tracheal, laryngeal, or bronchial foreign body). It can cause life-threatening airway obstruction. Young children under the age of 4 years and adults with underlying neurologic diseases are at highest risk for foreign body aspiration. Poultry and fish bones are commonly aspirated food items.

Patients will present with stridor, wheezing, and respiratory distress often of acute onset following the aspirating event. Decreased breath sounds localized to the side of the obstructing object can sometimes be appreciated. The blockage caused by a foreign body can result in tracheal injury, pneumonia, pneumonitis, lung abscesses, bronchiectasis, or hemoptysis.

Patients will often present with acute symptoms and require urgent if not emergent bronchoscopy for removal of the foreign body. If patients are unable to be adequately oxygenated or ventilated, emergent intubation may be required.

Despite advances in foreign body removal, bronchoscopy, and public health efforts to raise awareness about potential risks and measures to avoid aspiration (especially in children), foreign body aspiration remains a common cause of emergency visits and is a leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in the United States.


T17.908A – Unspecified foreign body in respiratory tract, part unspecified causing other injury, initial encounter

278696005 – Aspiration of foreign body into lower respiratory tract

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Diagnostic Pearls

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Differential Diagnosis & Pitfalls

  • Allergic reaction / Anaphylaxis
  • Pneumothorax
  • Viral pneumonia
  • Epiglottitis
  • Retropharyngeal abscess
  • Acute bronchitis
  • Atelectasis
  • Pneumonitis (eg, Extrinsic allergic alveolitis)
  • Lung abscess
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Asthma
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Vocal cord dysfunction or Vocal cord paralysis
  • Bronchiolitis
  • Vascular ring

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Last Reviewed:03/19/2018
Last Updated:02/10/2023
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Potentially life-threatening emergency
Foreign body aspiration
A medical illustration showing key findings of Foreign body aspiration : Cough, Cyanosis, Dysphagia, Dysphonia, Dyspnea, Wheezing, Decreased breath sounds, Stridor
Copyright © 2024 VisualDx®. All rights reserved.