Feeding tubes deliver nutrition, hydration, and medication directly to a person’s stomach or intestines. A healthcare professional will insert it through the nose, mouth, or abdomen.

A person may not be able to eat or drink for various reasons. They may use a feeding tube for days, weeks, or months, based on the type of tube they receive.

People with long-term feeding tubes can manage them at home with specific care instructions. They should also be aware of the possible complications or side effects that may require medical attention.

This article discusses the uses and types of feeding tubes, what to expect during insertion, potential risks and side effects, and home management.

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Feeding tubes are small, flexible tubes that can deliver nutrition, hydration, and medications to someone who cannot eat or drink. A healthcare professional will insert one through a person’s nose, mouth, or abdomen.

Feeding tubes work using a pump system, gravity, or a syringe. People can often operate their feeding tubes themselves.

Feeding tubes aid people who cannot maintain adequate nutrition and hydration or ingest medications independently. They help people receive the calories, nutrients, fluids, and medications they need to get or stay healthy.

Some situations where a feeding tube may be necessary include:

  • benign or malignant conditions — cancer
  • conditions caused by medical treatment
  • motility disorders of the esophagus
  • neurologic causes resulting in swallowing difficulties
  • psychosomatic issues such as dementia
  • intellectual disability or developmental delay
  • eating disorders

There are two main types of feeding tubes: short-term and long-term. Medical and personal factors determine which type of device a qualified healthcare professional recommends.

A person will use a short-term feeding tube for a few days or weeks. They enter through the nose or mouth and end in the stomach or small intestine.

People can use long-term feeding tubes for weeks or months. These enter through the abdomen and go into the stomach, small intestine, or both. They include:

  • gastrostomy tube (G tube)
  • jejunostomy tube (J tube)
  • gastrojejunal tube (GJ tube)

The insertion procedure will depend on the type of tube someone is receiving. A medical professional can use manual or surgical techniques, X-ray, or endoscopy — a thin tube with a camera.

If a person needs a short-term feeding tube, a qualified healthcare professional will insert it bedside. Then, they will use an X-ray to confirm that the tube is in the right place.

A variety of techniques exist for long-term feeding tube insertion.

One common technique involves endoscopy. A doctor will sedate the individual and insert an endoscope through the mouth and into the abdomen to find and illuminate the insertion site. Then, they will make a small incision and guide the tube into place.

A feeding tube can cause gastrointestinal complications, including:

While the insertion procedure is generally low risk for most people, other potential complications may include:

  • tenderness or soreness at the insertion site
  • bleeding
  • infection
  • injury to the esophagus, liver, or other organs
  • peritonitis — inflammation of the abdominal cavity’s lining

A person should clean the opening, or stoma, daily. They should gently wash it with unscented soap, avoid scrubbing, and dry the area when finished.

People should also flush the feeding tube with water throughout the day and after feedings to prevent clogs.

According to Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, an individual should examine the stoma once daily. While discoloration and slight drainage are typical, they should contact their doctor if they experience any of the following:

  • a rash
  • increased discoloration or swelling around the stoma
  • open skin around the stoma
  • bleeding from the stoma site
  • growing, painful, or bleeding tissue around the stoma
  • increased leakage at the stoma
  • vomiting of formula when on “J” feeds

If the tube falls out, a person should immediately attend the emergency room before the opening can close. A doctor may instruct them to cover the hole with a clean cloth or use a tube to keep the hole open while going to the hospital.

Those with feeding tubes should always follow their healthcare professional’s specific care and emergency instructions.

Feeding tubes are small tubes that deliver food, hydration, and medication straight to the stomach or intestines. They help those who cannot sufficiently eat or drink on their own.

Some complications may occur with a feeding tube insertion. Side effects include gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation.

It is important for people to always follow a doctor’s care instructions. Stoma sites require daily cleaning and examination — a person should contact their healthcare professional if they observe any issues.