What Is a Bowel Lavage?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Bowel lavage flushes out the entire intestinal tract to prepare for medical imaging studies and surgery. It can also be used in the treatment of some kinds of poisoning. In this procedure, patients drink a large quantity of liquid which moves through the intestines. The volume of fluid exceeds the absorption capabilities of the bowel, causing diarrhea which will eventually run clear, once everything in the intestines has been expelled.

A bowel lavage may be necessary prior to performing surgery.
A bowel lavage may be necessary prior to performing surgery.

Some patients may be able to drink the bowel lavage solution, which may be more comfortable for them. In other cases, a nasogastric tube can be used to directly deliver the fluid to the stomach. This may be uncomfortable, but can be a better option if the patient can’t drink fast enough or does not tolerate the taste of the solution. Patients can discuss their options before the procedure to learn more and get information about what to expect.

A bowel lavage will purposefully cause diarrhea to expel everything in the intestines.
A bowel lavage will purposefully cause diarrhea to expel everything in the intestines.

Also known as bowel preparation, this may be recommended prior to some kinds of medical imaging studies on the intestines, because material in the bowel could interfere with the pictures. It can also be necessary before surgeries, both for the comfort of people in the surgical suite and to protect the patient. Material in the bowel could cause a serious post-surgical infection. Colonoscopies, where a camera is inserted into the large bowel to evaluate the patient or screen for disease, may also require a bowel lavage.

Patients should discuss how the fluid will be delivered with their doctor prior to the procedure.
Patients should discuss how the fluid will be delivered with their doctor prior to the procedure.

In some cases of poisoning, this procedure can be indicated. If the poison has entered the intestines but the body hasn’t started absorbing it, a bowel lavage could quickly remove it from the patient’s system. The procedure may limit the amount that passes through the intestinal walls, helping the patient avoid serious complications as a result of the poisoning. This option is not always available, depending on the poison involved and how the patient was exposed.

Historically, the solution used for this procedure contained a mix of electrolytes that sometimes caused complications after it was finished. Medical providers today administer a balanced solution that will not interfere with the body’s electrolytes. The process can take as long as six hours and is usually performed over a toilet. Some patients may vomit if the fluid is introduced too quickly or they feel unwell, in which case the bowel lavage may need to be slowed or the patient might need an antiemetic drug to control nausea and vomiting.

A bowel lavage may be necessary prior to certain kinds of medical imaging studies.
A bowel lavage may be necessary prior to certain kinds of medical imaging studies.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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