Stomach pumping is well known as an emergency procedure to suction out the contents of your stomach if you’ve overdosed. But actually, it’s not the most common treatment for toxic ingestion, and has many nonemergency uses as well.
Stomach pumping is a medical procedure to suction out the contents of your stomach. It’s also called gastric suctioning or gastric lavage, which means washing. Both things happen during the procedure. A healthcare professional will alternately rinse your stomach with water or saline and then draw the contents out. They do this through a tube passed from either your nose or your mouth, into your stomach.
Most people know stomach pumping as an emergency procedure. If you swallow poison or overdose on pills, stomach pumping can help save your life by drawing out the toxins before your stomach absorbs them. But stomach pumping is also helpful in less dire circumstances. It can help relieve pressure in your stomach when it’s backed up with food, fluids or air. It can also clean out excess bleeding from a hemorrhage.
Gastric suctioning also plays a role in other common medical procedures. For example, if you’re having abdominal surgery, you’ll have gastric lavage and suctioning throughout the procedure to collect excess fluids. This helps prevent you from regurgitating and inhaling or choking on the fluids. Meanwhile, the saline wash helps sterilize your stomach to prevent infections.
Medical conditions that might require stomach pumping include:
Medical procedures that might involve gastric suctioning include:
It’s not as common as it used to be. In recent decades, the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology and the European Association of Poisons Centres and Clinical Toxicologists have discouraged the routine use of stomach pumping for gastrointestinal decontamination. Their consensus is that other treatments, such as activated charcoal or whole bowel irrigation, may be safer and/or more effective in many cases.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
There are three parts to the procedure:
You may need other treatments first before stomach pumping can safely proceed. Healthcare providers will monitor your vital signs before, during and after the procedure. If you’re lucid, they’ll discuss the procedure with you in advance and ask for your informed consent to proceed. They’ll test your gag reflex and install a breathing tube if necessary to help keep your airways open during the procedure.
Stomach pumping happens through a tube that connects your stomach with a manual or mechanical pump on the other side. It’s either a nasogastric tube, which goes through your nose, or an orogastric tube, which goes through your mouth. Both types pass down through your esophagus (swallowing tube) into your stomach. For stomach emptying, you’re more likely to have an orogastric tube, which is wider.
To install the tube, your healthcare provider will:
If you cough, gag or show distress, your healthcare provider will immediately stop advancing and withdraw the tube. They’ll try again after a short break. Once the tube has reached its mark, they’ll use one of several methods to confirm that it’s in the right place. They might take an X-ray, or they might suction out a small sample of your stomach juices and test the pH to confirm it contains stomach acid.
Once they’ve confirmed the placement of the tube, it’s safe to begin gastric lavage. Providers use different fluid solutions for lavage in different cases. It may be as simple as tap water or a saline solution. Saline helps prevent electrolyte losses from stomach pumping, especially in children and people already dehydrated from vomiting. Sometimes, the solution includes a specific poison antidote.
Your provider will:
The pumping itself doesn’t hurt, but the tube may be uncomfortable, especially when it’s being inserted and withdrawn. Healthcare providers try to minimize this by lubricating the end of the tube and using topical anesthetics and a gentle technique. Still, you may continue to feel irritation or feel like gagging. Securing the tube in place helps to reduce friction, but friction can still occur when you move around.
Unless you’re having surgery, your provider will safely remove the tube, making sure to prevent any contact with the substances inside. (If you’re having surgery, the tube will stay in for a few days.) Healthcare providers will observe your recovery for the next few hours and watch for any signs of complications. If you’re being treated for toxic ingestion, they’ll watch for complications from that, too.
In certain cases of toxic ingestion, stomach pumping can be lifesaving. Other times, it’s a helpful therapy that can relieve symptoms and allow further treatment or testing to proceed. And sometimes, it’s a precaution used to prevent you from having to empty your own stomach through vomiting. This is especially important during certain medical procedures, when vomiting would be more dangerous.
With good technique, complications from the procedure should be minimal. But mistakes are always possible. Some possible risks and complications include:
Stomach pumping is more effective when it happens soon after toxic ingestion. The longer the delay, the more poison will have already been absorbed. However, some toxins take longer to absorb than others, and a life-threatening dose may be reduced enough by stomach pumping to make a difference, even with some delay. So, healthcare providers elect stomach pumping based on the specifics of the case.
It may be indicated if:
It may not work or may be too dangerous if the person:
Seek emergency care immediately if you know or suspect you or someone in your care has overdosed on drugs, has ingested poison or has alcohol poisoning. Signs of poisonous ingestion include:
If you don’t see obvious symptoms but still suspect poisoning, call for advice. Don’t try to treat toxic ingestion at home unless you receive specific guidance.
Stomach pumping may or may not be the recommended treatment for toxic ingestion, depending on many factors, such as what was ingested, how much and how long ago. In some cases, stomach pumping may be ineffective or too risky when compared with other treatments. Regardless of the specific treatment, poisoning should be treated as soon as possible and under medical supervision.
Other treatments for toxic ingestion may include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Stomach pumping as an emergency procedure is a common trope in film and television dramas. But in reality, it’s not the default treatment for an alcohol or drug overdose. Stomach pumping is only considered safe and effective for decontamination under certain conditions. Nevertheless, you or a loved one may need it for that purpose someday. It might be uncomfortable, but if you need it, it’s worth it.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/10/2023.
Learn more about our editorial process.