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August 31, 2007

BehindTheMedspeak: What happens to swallowed chewing gum?


Anahad O'Connor, in his August 28, 2007 "Really?" column in the New York Times, explains it all for you.

Short story shorter: Don't worry about it.

Here's the Times piece.

    The Claim: Swallowed Gum Takes a Long Time to Digest

    The Facts: For generations, parents have told their children never to swallow chewing gum, lest it sit undigested for days, weeks or even years.

    This is, for the most part, an old wives’ tale. Swallowed chewing gum typically passes through the digestive tract without harm and is eliminated at the same rate as other foods.

    But rare complications can occur. The medical literature contains several case reports of people, mostly small children, who developed intestinal obstructions because they had a habit of swallowing their gum. A 1998 study in the journal Pediatrics, for example, described three children who came to a clinic with intestinal pain, constipation and other symptoms, and were found to have small masses of chewing gum in their guts. One was a 4-year-old boy who “always swallowed his gum after chewing five to seven pieces each day.” Another was a 4-year-old girl.

    Three other studies, including one in The American Journal of Diseases of Children, describe similar cases. In most, the young patients were fine after removal of the obstructions. The phenomenon is rare, the studies noted. But they might also serve as a cautionary tale for the parents of small children, particularly those with a strong fondness for gum.

    The Bottom Line: Chewing gum is typically digested without harm, though rare complications can occur.


Ah, yes, the photo up top, which accompanied the 1998 article in Pediatrics: its caption reads, "Four coins stuck in gum lodged in esophagus" — of a 1-1/2-year-old girl.

Okay then, after that tidbit, who's in the mood to explore the original literature with me?

Let's start with the abstract of the 1998 paper in Pediatrics cited above.

    Chewing Gum Bezoars of the Gastrointestinal Tract

    Children have chewed gum since the Stone Age. Black lumps of prehistoric tar with human tooth impressions have been found in Northern Europe dating from ~7000 BC (Middle Stone Age) to 2000 BC (Bronze Age). The bite impressions suggest that most chewers were between 6 and 15 years of age. The Greeks chewed resin from the mastic tree (mastic gum). North American Indians chewed spruce gum. The first manufacturing patent for chewing gum was issued in 1869 for a natural gum, chicle, derived from the Sopadilla tree, indigenous to Central America. Chewing gum sold today is a mixture of natural and synthetic gums and resins, with added color and flavor sweetened with corn syrup and sugar. Chewing gum is big business. A significant amount of the $21 billion US candy industry sales is from chewing gums, many of which appeal almost exclusively to children. Despite the history and prevalence of gum chewing, the medical literature contains very little information about the adverse effects of chewing gum. In the present report, we briefly review gum-chewing complications and describe three children who developed intestinal tract and esophageal obstruction as a consequence of swallowing gum.


Isn't "bezoar" a great word?

I've loved it since I first happened on it in pathology in my second year of medical school.

Great back story, too.

There are many types of bezoars, for example:





Reminds me of all the great shrimp dishes Forrest Gump's buddy Bubba fantasized about.

But I digress.

Here's a link to the entire Pediatrics article abstracted above, for those who simply can't stop chewing on this topic.

August 31, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I knew that bezoar post was here someplace.

Ever since I adopted these two five month old (or is that five-month-old?...now I have to start becoming hyphen conscious...[hyphen-conscious?]) felines, they chew on my hair at night when I jump in the sack, and probably continue to chew while I'm sleeping. MY hair. My HAIR. Which makes me wonder if THEY could get human hair bezoars. If they ate enough of it. Eew.

Well of course they could. What am I thinking. Oh no, now I'll have to start wearing an old lady hairnet to bed! Hey, I wonder if they got bezoars from my hair, if they'd be called "Bevzoars." Hah!

Posted by: Flautist | Sep 24, 2007 4:26:15 PM

I have my hand up....don't believe we digest gum. I believe we pull off the simple carbohydrates and the other stuff just passes right on through...must get students to verify my assertion...

Posted by: ScienceChic | Aug 31, 2007 11:14:46 PM

That woulda been a great "What Is It?".

Posted by: Flautist | Aug 31, 2007 4:24:24 PM

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