What is a feeding tube and hydration?

A feeding tube is a treatment to give food and fluids by tubes if you can’t eat. Artificial hydration is the process of taking in water and fluids through a tube or an IV.

How does a feeding tube and hydration work?

Tube feeding can be given for a short time with a tube placed through the nose and down to the stomach. When a feeding tube is used for a longer time, a surgeon places the tube through a small cut in your skin directly over the stomach.

Artificial hydration is a treatment to provide water through a tube in the vein (IV) or through a feeding tube if you can’t drink on your own.

When is a feeding tube and hydration used?

These treatments can be helpful when you are recovering from an illness or injury. For those facing the end of life, there are benefits and risks associated with a feeding tube or hydration as a treatment.

Feeding tubes work best if you are mostly healthy and are recovering from surgery, an accident or sudden illness. Those who are not aware of themselves and others or can’t respond purposefully to their surroundings (in a vegetative state) can live for years with tube feedings and hydration. For those nearing the end of life, tube feedings and hydration will not prevent death, but may extend life for a short time.

Risks of using a feeding tube and hydration

There are more risks if you are older and weak, have chronic health problems or a serious illness. Talk with your doctor about these risks.

  • Liquid food given through feeding tubes can spill into the lungs and cause infection (called aspiration pneumonia).
  • Those who pull on an IV or tube may need to have their hands tied down.
  • Infection can occur at the site of the needle if IV fluids are used.
  • When you are seriously ill or your end of life may be near, it’s harder for your body to absorb and use food and fluids. Fluids can build up and cause swelling, shortness of breath, pain and diarrhea.
  • Feeding tubes and hydration won’t benefit a person with end-stage dementia. They carry more risk of harm than careful hand feeding and are not recommended by medical experts.

What to consider

Talk to your doctor about the risks and the benefits of feeding tubes and hydration. Think about what your choice would be if you lost your awareness or were in the end stage of an illness. You may want to try a feeding tube for a time to see if it helps, use it long term or decide not to start this treatment. It’s important to ask yourself:

  • Will this improve my illness or health situation?
  • How may this affect my comfort and quality of life?

If you choose not to have a feeding tube, you will still get the care you need for comfort and to manage pain or other symptoms. Most people do not feel hunger near the end of life. If you feel thirst or dry mouth, these can be relieved with ice chips and good mouth care for comfort.

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