Learning About Living With a Feeding Tube

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What is tube feeding?

Your body needs nutrition to stay strong and help you live a healthy life. If you're unable to eat, or if you have an illness that makes it hard to swallow food, you may need a feeding tube. The tube is placed in the stomach and is used to give food, liquids, and medicines.

Depending on why you need a feeding tube, you may have it for several weeks or months or longer.

When you first get a feeding tube, your biggest challenge may be your new relationship with food. For many people, eating and savouring food is one of the most pleasing parts of daily life. You may grieve the loss of the daily habit of eating and the social aspects of sharing food with others.

If you've struggled to get enough nutrition—if it's been hard to eat or swallow—having a feeding tube can help you regain your health and strength. And understanding how a feeding tube works is a first step toward dealing with changes that come with having the tube. It can also help you avoid common problems that can occur.

What can you expect when you have a feeding tube?

After surgery to insert a feeding tube, you'll have a 15 to 30 centimetre tube coming out of your belly. The tube is about the same width as a pen.

There are different ways the tube can be used for feeding. Your doctor will help you decide which is best for you and how often feedings should occur.

  • A feeding syringe. This is most common. A syringe is connected to the tube. A nutritional mixture (formula) is put into the syringe and flows into the tube and your stomach. This is called bolus feeding.
  • A gravity bag. Formula is placed into a special bag that is hung on a hook or a pole. The height and weight of the bag make the food flow down the tube and into your stomach.
  • A bag and pump. A pump is used to push formula from a bag through the tube. This is also called continuous feeding.

How do you use a feeding tube?

It's important that the food you use for tube feeding have the right blend of nutrients for you. And the food needs to be the correct thickness so the tube doesn't clog. For most people, a milk shake-type of formula works best for tube feeding. Your doctor or dietitian will help you find the right formula to use.

Each time you use the tube for feeding:

  • Make sure that the tube-feeding formula is at room temperature.
  • Wash your hands before you handle the tube and formula. Wash the top of the can of formula before you open it.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions for how much formula to use for each feeding.
    • If using a feeding syringe: Connect the syringe to the tube, and put the formula into the syringe. Hold the syringe up high so the formula flows into the tube. Use the plunger on the syringe to gently push any remaining formula into the tube.
    • If using a gravity bag: Connect the bag to the tube, and add the formula to the bag. Hang the bag on a hook or pole about 45 centimetres above the stomach. Depending on the type of formula, the food may take a few hours to flow through the tube. Ask your doctor what you can expect and how long it should take.
    • If using a bag and pump, follow the instructions that come with the pump.
  • Sit up or keep your head up during the feeding and for 60 minutes after.
  • If you feel sick to your stomach or have stomach cramps during the feeding, slow the rate that the formula comes through the tube. Then slowly increase the rate as you can manage it.
  • Keep the formula in the refrigerator after you open it. Don't let the formula sit at room temperature for more than 8 hours. Throw away any open cans of food after 24 hours, even if they have been refrigerated.
  • Talk with your doctor about changing your feedings or medicines if you are having problems with diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting.

How do you care for a feeding tube?

  • Keep it clean. That's the most important thing you need to know about caring for your tube. Flush the tube with warm water before and after feedings or giving medicines. You can use a syringe to push water through the tube. Clean the end (opening) of the tube every day with an antiseptic wipe.
  • Always wash your hands before touching the tube.
  • Tape the tube to your body so the end is facing up. Look for medical tape in your local drugstore. It may irritate your skin less than other types of tape. Change the position of the tape every few days.
  • Clamp the tube when you're not using it. Put the clamp close to your body so that food and liquids don't run down the tube.
  • Keep the skin around the tube clean and dry.

How do you avoid problems with a feeding tube?

  • Blocked tube. A blocked tube can happen when the tube isn't flushed or when formula or medicines are too thick.
    • Prevent blockage by flushing the tube with warm water before and after using the tube.
    • If the tube is blocked, try to clear it by flushing the tube. Call your doctor or nurse call line if the tube won't clear.
    • Don't use a wire or anything else to try to unclog a tube. A wire can poke a hole in the tube.
  • Tube falls out. Don't try to put the tube back in by yourself. Call your doctor or nurse call line right away. The tube needs to be replaced before the opening in your belly closes, which can happen within hours.
  • Leaking tube. A tube that leaks may be blocked, or it may not fit right. After checking the tube and flushing it to make sure that the tube isn't blocked, call your doctor or nurse call line.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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Current as of: July 26, 2016