Anaerobes have been considered a major cause of aspiration pneumonia (AP) based on studies published in 1970’s (1-3). More recent data, however, suggest that anaerobes no longer play an important role in most cases of AP (4-7) and routine inclusion of specific anti-anaerobic drugs in their treatment is no longer necessary.
An important reason for anaerobes not playing an important role in AP in the current era is the change in the demographics of patients who may be affected. Patients reported in older studies often suffered from alcohol use disorder, drug ingestion, seizure disorders and acute cerebrovascular accident. In contrast, more recent data show that AP often occurs in nursing home residents, the elderly with cognitive impairment, and those with dysphagia, gastrointestinal dysmotility or tube feeding (8,9).
In addition, many cases of AP reported in older studies involved delay of 4 or more days before seeking medical attention and, not surprisingly, often presented with lung abscess, necrotizing pneumonia, empyema, or putrid sputum, features that are relatively rare in the current era.
Further supporting the diminishing role of anaerobes in AP, are recent microbiological studies of the respiratory tract in AP revealing the infrequent isolation of anaerobes and, even when isolated, often coexisting with aerobic bacteria. The latter observation is important because, due to the alteration in the redox potential (9,10), treatment of aerobic bacteria alone may lead to less oxygenation consumption and less favorable environment for survival of anaerobes in the respiratory tract.
We should also always consider the potential adverse effects of unnecessary antibiotics with anaerobic activity in our frequently debilitated patients, including gastrointestinal dysbiosis (associated with Clostridiodes difficile infections and overgrowth of antibiotic-resistant pathogens such as vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE), hypersensitivity reactions, drug interactions, and central nervous system toxicity (11,12).
Thus, the weight of the evidence does not justify routine anaerobic coverage of AP in today’s patients.
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1. Bartlett JG, Gorbach SL, Finegold SM. The bacteriology of aspiration pneumonia. Am J Med. 1974;56(2):202-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4812076
2. Bartlett JG, Finegold SM. Anaerobic pleuropulmonary infections. Medicine (Baltimore). 1972;51(6):413-50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4564416
3. Bartlett JG, Gorbach SL. The triple threat of aspiration pneumonia. Chest. 1975;68(4):560-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1175415
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9. Mandell LA, Niederman MS. Aspiration Pneumonia. N Engl J Med. 2019 Feb 14;380(7):651-663. doi: 10.1056/NEJMra1714562. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30763196
10. Walden, W. C., & Hentges, D. J. (1975). Differential effects of oxygen and oxidation-reduction potential on the multiplication of three species of anaerobic intestinal bacteria. Applied microbiology, 30(5), 781–785. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC187272/
11. Sullivan A, Edlund C, Nord CE. Effect of antimicrobial agents on the ecological balance of human microflora. Lancet Infect Dis. 2001;1(2):101-14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11871461
12. Bhalla A, Pultz NJ, Ray AJ, Hoyen CK, Eckstein EC, Donskey CJ. Antianaerobic antibiotic therapy promotes overgrowth of antibiotic-resistant, gram-negative bacilli and vancomycin-resistant enterococci in the stool of colonized patients. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2003;24(9):644-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14510245
Contributed by Amar Vedamurthy, MD, MPH, Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA