How Bad Is It Really to Swallow Gum?

Your body isn't able to break down the ingredients in gum.
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How Bad Is It Really? sets the record straight on all the habits and behaviors you’ve heard might be unhealthy.

Chewing gum is beloved for many reasons: It's a quick fix for bad breath, makes a tasty snack and can even be used as a nicotine replacement to help you quit smoking. But legend has it that swallowed gum will sit in your stomach for seven years.

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So, is it really bad to swallow gum?We spoke to two doctors to find out.

What Happens When You Swallow Gum

Swallowing an occasional piece of gum is usually harmless, says Odelia Lewis, MD, a board-certified family medicine doctor in Brooklyn, New York.

That said, there is some truth to the rumor that you can't digest gum. Indeed, your stomach is unable to break down the chewy snack, as it's made from mostly synthetic ingredients. As a result, it moves through your digestive tract intact until it's excreted in your stool, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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Exactly how long that takes isn't known, and it likely depends on a variety of factors, like how much gum you swallowed and how quickly your digestive system moves.

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It's not uncommon to eat things your body can't digest — foods like raw seeds and corn also pass through your GI tract without breaking down much, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Potential Negative Effects of Swallowing Gum

While swallowing gum every now and then is not bad for you, doctors don't recommend you make a habit out of it due to the slight potential for complications.

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For instance: "In rare cases, swallowing too much gum — especially in a short time — can lead to a blockage of the digestive tract," Dr. Lewis says.

Per the Mayo Clinic, an intestinal blockage can cause symptoms like:

  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas
  • Swelling of the abdomen

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Left untreated, it can also lead to permanent damage or infection in your digestive tract.

And that's not the only complication to consider. "There is a concern of the gum getting into the trachea," says Candace Griffith, MD, a board-certified internal medicine doctor based in Pensacola, Florida.

Though rare, if gum gets into your trachea, it can then enter your lungs, Dr. Griffith says. According to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, this can lead to issues like:

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  • Trouble breathing
  • Choking
  • Coughing

"Any foreign object found where it shouldn't be in the body is cause for concern and can result in procedures for removal that could have been avoided," Dr. Griffith says.

Special Consideration for Children

These risks are more pronounced when it comes to kids. "Children are more likely to experience choking episodes and intestinal blockages due to swallowing gum when compared to adults," Dr. Lewis says.

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Why? Well, "with kids, everything is done large — they'll chew four or five wads of gum to blow the biggest bubble," Dr. Griffith says. "They can innocently try to swallow and end up choking. Because their choking reflex is not as developed as adults, this is potentially dangerous."

What's more, a child's airway is smaller, so a larger obstruction is more common. That's why aspiration of foreign bodies (accidentally breathing food or fluid into the lungs) is a common emergency seen in children.

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What to Do if Your Child Chokes on Gum

According to Stanford Children’s Health, these are the steps to follow if a child is choking (note that the technique is different if you're dealing with a choking infant younger than 1):

  1. Call 911 and keep them on the line while you assist.
  2. Stand behind the child and wrap your arms around their waist.
  3. Make a fist with one hand, thumb side in. Place your fist just below the chest and slightly above the navel. Grab your fist with the other hand.
  4. Press into their abdomen with a quick upward push.
  5. Repeat this thrust until the gum comes out.
  6. Take your child to the doctor to make sure no debris is left in their lungs.

Benefits of Chewing Gum

There are risks associated with regularly swallowing gum, but this doesn't mean you have to give up chewing altogether.

In fact, there are some benefits to chewing gum. For example, snacking on gum while performing tasks may improve various aspects of brain function, including alertness and focus, per a May 2015 review in BioMed Research International.

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Research has also revealed that chewing gum can help reduce stress levels, according to a June 2012 study in ​Appetite.

Just remember to dispose of used gum the old-fashioned way: by throwing it in the trash. That way you can enjoy the benefits of the chewable without assuming any of the risks associated with swallowing gum.

So, How Bad Is It Really to Swallow Gum?

According to doctors, swallowing gum every once in a while is generally harmless.

However, it's best not to make a habit of it and to always avoid swallowing large wads of gum, as this can put you at risk for a lung or bowel obstruction.

It's also important to avoid giving gum (especially large servings) to young children and to closely monitor older kids when they chew gum, as they have a higher risk of choking.

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references

Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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