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Swallowing gum could be detrimental to health

Everybody has been warned at least once can swallowing gum can be fatal. Does a single wad really stay in our gut for seven years and place ourselves at risk?

Jun 6, 2019 |
5 min read

Arguably more than any other foodstuff, chewing gum has long been subject to rumor, legend, and innuendo.

Claims that chewing gum never leaves the body if swallowed have haunted children for generations. Another popular theory is that gum stays in the body for seven years, potentially preventing essential organs from functioning appropriately. As gum is such a potentially dangerous substance, it’s a mystery as to why it has remained on sale for so long.

Like so many legends, there is a small kernel of truth to these claims. You can relax if you accidentally swallow a piece of gum, though. There’s no need to start making a will and preparing for the end. While it’s true that the human digestive tract does not break gum down, it still leaves the body pretty quickly.

How the body processes gum

When the human body swallows food, it enters the digestive tract. From here, a variety of acids and enzymes activate and break the food down. This is how it can be excreted in our stool.

This doesn’t apply to gum, though. Mainly because gum isn’t technically food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration place it in the same category as soda, or even a candle. You wouldn’t tuck into a wax candle as a snack, so gum should be treated with the same caution.

The actual ingredients of gum vary between manufacturers and are often a jealously guarded trade secret. At least some of these components will be synthetic though, which means the human body cannot break them down. These will not contribute to the flavor of the gum, but they will explain why it’s tough enough to chew for several hours.

It’s understandable if this worries you. If the gum is no broken down and digested, how could it possibly be safe to swallow? Well, a wad of gum is so small that it will generally pass through the body without a fuss.

Your stomach will pass the gum over to your small intestine, along with any other undigested food. From here, the waste is passed as a stool. Fundamentally, gum bypasses the whole digestive process and skips straight to elimination.

This whole process usually takes around two to three days. A colonoscopy practically never exposes gum that’s over a week old. After this, the gum is out of your body for good. That’s certainly a lot more appealing than waiting for seven years, as some myths would have you believe!

Despite these reassuring truths, it doesn’t mean that gum should be swallowed with abandon. It’s called chewing gum for a reason.

Swallowing excessive gum can be dangerous

As discussed, a wad of gum will move through the body and make its way out through your stool. So far, so good. Like anything, though, you shouldn’t push your luck. Sizeable quantities of gum will take a while to process, after all. Just like eating a huge steak takes quite some time to break down, too much gum will take its toll on your body. You’ll feel pretty wretched for a while.

There is a further danger, too. If you also happen to be constipated for unrelated reasons, the gum will take longer to clear. The more gum you to add to your digestive tract, the bigger the wad of stickiness becomes. This means that other undigested food could get stuck to this.

This can cause an intestinal blockage, leading to significant health concerns. Eventually, organ failure can occur. Blood needs to circulate around your body to help everything function as it should. If the path of your blood is blocked, that will become challenging.

Again, though, please don’t lose any sleep over this. One stick of gum will not have this impact. It takes the ingestion of a lot of gum, and even then, you’ll still need to be experiencing a secondary digestive issue. All the same, don’t take too many chances. Accidentally swallowing the occasional wad of gum is very different to willfully consuming it to excess.

What are the symptoms of an intestinal blockage?

If you’re feeling odd after swallowing gum and you’re worried that you have an intestinal blockage, look out for these symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain and swelling.
  • Sporadic stomach cramps.
  • Constipation.
  • Vomiting.
  • Loss of appetite.

If you experience any of these symptoms after swallowing gum, you should visit your doctor. It remains unlikely that this is related to the gum incident, but an intestinal blockage should still be taken seriously anyway. Regardless of the root cause, it must be addressed.

Is gum safe for children?

A child’s body operates in precisely the same way as that of an adult. This means that, in theory, it’s no more dangerous for a child to swallow gum than an adult.

All the same, it’s best to keep young children away from gum. Younger kids may not understand that gum is to be chewed and spat out, not swallowed. Also, they’ll be at risk of more secondary illnesses than adults. Childhood is essentially one long exposure to minor sickness and ailments!

I want to purge my body of swallowed gum

Hopefully, this article has set your mind at rest. There’s really no need to panic and drive to the local hospital for an x-ray if you’ve swallowed gum. If you remain concerned, though, you could consider attempting to flush the substance from your body.

Don’t attempt to do this induced vomiting. Unless you swallowed the gum in the immediate past, it would already have moved into your digestive tract. You’ll experience all the unpleasant sensations of vomiting, and you still won’t remove the gum from your body.

Instead, use a stimulant laxative. You can find such a product in any pharmacy or even a supermarket. Just be sure to read the label, and be careful about when you take the medication.

Laxatives can be very potent, and will likely continue working long after the gum has been purged. You won’t be able to drive or sleep, for a while. If you prefer to use a natural product, olive oil, prunes or aloe vera are all worth investigating.

Swallow chewing gum remains inadvisable, and it should be avoided as a matter of course. All the same, your life is not in danger if you accidentally do so! Just be patient, and wait for it to make its way through your body.

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