Tracheobronchial aspiration of gastric contents in critically ill tube-fed patients: Frequency, outcomes, and risk factors

Norma A. Metheny, Ray E. Clouse, Yie Hwa Chang, Barbara J. Stewart, Dana A. Oliver, Marin H. Kollef

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

300 Scopus citations


Objectives: To describe the frequency of pepsin-positive tracheal secretions (a proxy for the aspiration of gastric contents), outcomes associated with aspiration (including a positive Clinical Pulmonary Infection Score [a proxy for pneumonia] and use of hospital resources), and risk factors associated with aspiration and pneumonia in a population of critically ill tube-fed patients. Design: Prospective descriptive study conducted over a 2-yr period. Setting: Five intensive care units in a university-affiliated medical center with level I trauma status. Patients: Each of the 360 adult patients participated for 4 days. Among the inclusion criteria were mechanical ventilation and tube feedings. An exclusion criterion was physician-diagnosed pneumonia at the time of enrollment. Intervention: None. Measurements and Major Results: Almost 6,000 tracheal secretions collected during routine suctioning were assayed for pepsin; of these, 31.3% were positive. At least one aspiration event was identified in 88.9% (n = 320) of the participants. The incidence of pneumonia (as determined by the Clinical Pulmonary Infection Score) increased from 24% on day 1 to 48% on day 4. Patients with pneumonia on day 4 had a significantly higher percentage of pepsin-positive tracheal secretions than did those without pneumonia (42.2% vs. 21.1%, respectively; p < .001). Length of stay in the intensive care unit and need for ventilator support were significantly greater for patients with pneumonia (p < .01). A low backrest elevation was a risk factor for aspiration (p = .024) and pneumonia (p = .018). Other risk factors for aspiration included vomiting (p = .007), gastric feedings (p = .009), a Glasgow Coma Scale score <9 (p = .021), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (p = .033). The most significant independent risk factors for pneumonia were aspiration (p < .001), use of paralytic agents (p = .002), and a high sedation level (p = .039). Conclusions: Aspiration of gastric contents is common in critically ill tube-fed patients and is a major risk factor for pneumonia. Furthermore, it leads to greater use of hospital resources. Modifiable risk factors for aspiration need to be addressed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1007-1015
Number of pages9
JournalCritical care medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2006


  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Critical illness
  • Enteral nutrition
  • Gastric emptying
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Risk factors


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