How to unclog a feeding tube and keep it that way!

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Your feeding tube is your lifeline. If you get a clog in your tube, it can mean missing vital nutrition, hydration, and medication. Not good!

If it gets clogged, do you know how to unclog your feeding tube? And better yet, how to keep it unclogged? 

You may have heard of different methods on the internet. Spoiler – many of them can just make it worse. 

Let’s get into the proper way to unclog your feeding tube and the best strategies for preventing blockages in the first place.

At the end, you can download a free resource for you to stick on the fridge so you know how to troubleshoot in the (hopefully unlikely) instance you need to use it.

What’s causing your feeding tube to clog?

A clog in your feeding tube means something has gotten stuck in your tube and it is not allowing anything to go into your body to provide you with your nutrition, hydration, or medication.

What factors contribute to a clogged feeding tube in the first place?

Well, it could be related to tube size, insufficient water flushing, the particle size of the food or formula, or incorrectly taking medication through the tube (1, 2).

I’ve been working with people in the hospital and at home on tube feeds for over 15 years. Usually, a clog can be worked loose and feeds can continue. But there have been instances when the tube needs replacement because the clog won’t budge. 

Often it’s related to medication, a medication and formula interaction, or improper or infrequent water flushing.

Since I work with people using blended tube feeding, I have to mention that there is not any convincing research to say that blenderized food is any more likely to cause clogs than formula (2, 3) – although you may have heard about this as a risk.

If you want to learn more about blenderized tube feeding and the myth of tube clogs, I wrote about this and other myths here.

When you get a clog, you want to deal with it promptly to have the best chance of unclogging your feeding tube. Let’s address the best way to do it.

How to unclog your feeding tube

You may have heard on your chat groups and on the internet to use juice or various carbonated drinks like cola. You may have also heard about using meat tenderizer or sticking a pipe cleaner in the tube to get it unclogged.

You may be tempted to try these methods but in fact, they can just make the clog worse. This is because they may cause the proteins in your formula or food to come apart (denature), leading to a worse clog.

I’ll talk you through the recommended steps to take when you have a clog. At the end of the article, you’ll find a link to a free download with a quick checklist for the steps I’m going to talk about next. 

Start by massaging the tubing to see if you can feel the clog and work it loose. 

Try warm water first

Then try using warm water in a 30-60 ml syringe. Attach the syringe with warm water to the end of your feeding tube and use a gentle back-and-forth motion on the plunger to try and dislodge the clog (1, 2). 

Be careful not to apply too much pressure as you can cause the feeding tube to rupture or split.

You can leave the tube to soak for up to 20 minutes to let the warm water reach the clog and break it down. 

Try enzymes next

If warm water is unsuccessful, the next step would be to use pancreatic enzyme with sodium bicarbonate (or ⅛ tsp of baking soda) (1, 2). This will require a prescription from your physician.

The pancreatic enzyme mixed with the sodium bicarbonate and water creates an alkaline pH to dissolve the clog (1). It is drawn up in the syringe, like a medication, and attached to your feeding tube. 

Again, use a gentle back-and-forth motion on the plunger to try and get the mixture into the tube and break down the clog. 

Lastly, a mechanical device can be used

This is not a pipe cleaner or a straightened-out paper clip!

Only use approved devices for clearing a feeding tube mechanically. You could risk poking holes in your feeding tube if you use something too firm or sharp. 

You could also risk injury to your gastrointestinal tract if the device you’re using goes beyond your tube and into your body.

Check with your healthcare team about what options are available if the previous two methods have failed. 

Mechanical clearance devices may only be provided in a healthcare setting. 

Even better than trying to deal with how to unclog your feeding tube is preventing it in the first place! Let’s talk about steps to take to prevent a clog.

Preventing feeding tube clogs

Some general good practices will help prevent a clogged feeding tube: 

  • Always flush your feeding tube immediately before and after your tube feed and before and after any medication
  • Flush with AT LEAST 30 ml water unless otherwise directed
  • Don’t mix your medications unless you’ve been told to do so by your healthcare provider
  • Flush 15 ml water between medications, unless otherwise directed by your healthcare provider
  • Don’t mix the medication with your tube feeding formula or blended tube feed
  • Talk to your physician or pharmacist about your medications and review alternatives if something cannot be crushed (eg. enteric-coated, time-release, or sustained-release medication or capsule)
  • Crush medication to a fine powder and dissolve in warm water before flushing through your tube
  • Some medications are available as liquids but note that some liquid medications can contribute to diarrhea (1
  • If using blended tube feeds, make sure food is blended well and has no large particles to block the tube. If you don’t have a high-powered blender, you may consider passing your blended food through a strainer.

Being diligent with these tips will help to prevent clogs and the panic that comes with figuring out what to do next.

Final thoughts

Being diligent with steps to prevent the clogs from happening is your best defense. But if you do have a clog, deal with it promptly for your best chance to unclog the tube. 

If you are unsuccessful with warm water and gentle pressure as I discussed above, the next step is to reach out to your healthcare team if you don’t already have a prescription for enzymes and sodium bicarbonate.

Try to resist the temptation to try other methods you’ve read about on the internet, like cola, juice, or meat tenderizer. They can just make to issue worse.

If how to unclog your feeding tube wasn’t something your healthcare team went over with you, you may want to download my free checklist for unclogging your tube and keeping it that way.

It’s meant as a quick guide to keep on the fridge or with your tube feeding supplies to provide you reminders so you’re not searching for that pile of information when you’re in a panic with a clog. 

Knowing this and other tube feeding care will set you up for success at home with your feeding tube. I hope it’s empowered you to feel confident with another aspect of your tube feeding.

If you’re looking to connect another way, follow me on Instagram and join a supportive tube feeding community.

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