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 surgically inserted into your 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 for the rest of your life. Having a feeding tube means learning new skills and adopting new routines. You'll need to learn how to use and care for the tube, and how to avoid common problems.
- A feeding tube is inserted during a surgery. After the surgery, you'll have a 6- to 12-inch tube coming out of your belly.
- Foods, liquids, and medicines are given using the tube. The food is a mixture (formula) made up of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
- Keeping the tube clean is very important.
- Adjusting to using a feeding tube takes time. The first step is learning all you can about how the tube works and how to avoid problems. Making tube feeding less of a mystery may help you make it a part of your daily life.
How do you use and care for a feeding tube?
Using the tube for feeding
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 that you can buy in a can works best for tube feeding. Your doctor or dietitian will help you find the right formula to use.
- 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 18 inches 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.
- Sit up or keep your head up during the feeding and for 60 minutes (or as long as your doctor tells you to) afterward.
- 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.
- 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.
- Talk with your doctor about changing your feedings or medicines if you are having problems with diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting.
Using the tube to take medicines
- If you take medicines through your feeding tube, follow your doctor's instructions. Don't try to put whole pills in the tube—they may get stuck. Ask your doctor if liquid medicine is available, or if your pills can be crushed.
- Don't mix your medicine with the tube-feeding formula. This can cause a clog in the feeding tube.
- Don't put more than one medicine down your feeding tube at a time.
- Flush the tube with water before and after you put each medicine down your tube.
Caring for the 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 closer to your body so that food and liquids don't run down the tube.
- Keep the skin around the tube clean and dry.
- Sleep on your back or your side. You are likely to be more comfortable.
Avoiding common problems
- 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 feedings and medicines.
- If the tube is blocked, try to clear it by flushing the tube. Call your doctor 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 right away. The tube needs to be replaced before the opening in your belly closes. This 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.
Current as of: May 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator