Reflux-aspiration in chronic lung disease

Augustine S. Lee, Joyce S. Lee, Zhaoping He, Jay H. Ryu

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Microaspiration, or silent aspiration, is commonly suspected in patients with refractory respiratory symptoms, including unexplained chronic cough, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchiolitis, bronchiectasis, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. This suspicion is driven by the high prevalence of gastroesophageal reflux in these otherwise disparate disorders. Frequently, patients receive aggressive treatment for gastroesophageal reflux disease as a means of treating their underlying respiratory conditions, even in the absence of overt symptoms of reflux. However, clinical trials have not demonstrated a clear impact on outcomes with this strategy, and in some instances there may be potential for harm. Mechanistic studies have increasingly used gastric biomarkers obtained directly from the airways to confirm the association between reflux and respiratory disease, but results are limited by methodologic flaws and correlation. The best evidence of aspiration directly causing respiratory disorders is the histopathologic detection of foreign bodies. For most of the other chronic respiratory disorders, microaspiration may be uncommon or a secondary aggravating factor, as in patients with acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. In some cases, microaspiration is probably not a significant factor at all, such as in unexplained chronic cough. It is important to distinguish between conditions in which aspiration is primarily or directly causal and conditions in which aspiration may be indirectly aggravating, to help identify whether interventions targeting reflux and aspiration precautions should be recommended to patients. Our clinical review examines some of the evidence supporting reflux-aspiration as a mechanism for several chronic respiratory disorders and offers some management considerations when reflux-aspiration is suspected.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)155-164
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of the American Thoracic Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2020


  • Aspiration
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine


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