Let's be honest — at some point or another, you've swallowed your gum, whether on purpose or by accident. Some of you might've immediately panicked about how that piece of gum could somehow become a sticky, hard wad that'd rot in your gut and destroy your insides. But despite popular mythology, swallowing gum isn't bad for you — although most doctors wouldn't recommend doing it just for the hell of it.
While no one should be going out of their way to swallow gum intentionally, it is OK if it happens — even as frequently as once or twice a day, says Dr. Patricia L. Raymond, gastroenterologist and assistant professor of clinical internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. "It’s sort of like when somebody has inadvertently swallowed a Lego. It passes through," she explains. Whether you'll need medical attention or not all depends on where the gum ends up.
"As long as it ends up in the colon and doesn’t get stuck in the outflow of the stomach called the pylorus, or the ileocaecal valve from the small intestine, we won’t need to retrieve it,” Dr. Raymond says.
And more likely than not, the gum will end up in the proper location. Dr. Marcelo Leal, pediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist, explains that gum "shouldn’t get stuck in your stomach unless there's a reason for it to do so," such as if you swallow an excessive amount without giving your body time to digest or have an unrelated intestinal issue.
Although gum is indigestible, its smooth, malleable texture and small size work well with humans' digestive tracts, so problems are rare. While foreign bodies with sharp edges or hard textures, like toothpicks or peach pits, might cause tears along the intestinal tract or a blockage, gum should go straight through your body, meaning that no, you do not have two decades' worth of it lodged in your colon in one big mass.
"Even if you swallowed three pieces [of gum], they’re not going to coalesce into the size of a giant softball,” says Dr. Raymond. Dr. Leal adds that you're more likely to get a bezoar — a mass of indigestible material in the digestive tract — from eating "clumps of hair" than from gum.
So if you do happen to swallow a piece, simply let nature take its course, and don’t try to expel it yourself through the use of laxatives, cleanses, or enemas. “I would leave it alone," advises Dr. Raymond. “We get into trouble when we start to fiddle with or regulate our bowels." She compares cleaning your insides to composting items at home and then sterilizing them with Lysol. "You need the bacteria in there, the microbes and bugs so we can turn over the next load of compost," she explains. "Why in the world would you sterilize it? It’s made to be as unsterile and multifaceted as possible.”
Besides, even if you chew your gum without swallowing it, there's a chance it can still negatively impact your digestive system. When you chew gum, you ingest mouthfuls of air, which travel down your colon and can lead to what Dr. Raymond calls aerophasia, a type of non-odorous flatulence. “There’s no amount of anti-gas material you can take. You just need to stop chewing all of that gum,” she says.
While passing gas is completely normal, the bloating that might accompany it can feel pretty uncomfortable. Additionally, gum contains either simple sugars or artificial sweeteners, which can both alter your gut flora and lead to discomfort and inflammation when consumed in excess.
Gum can hurt you even if you do everything right — but if you're still worried, drink lots of water, as the liquid should allow the gum to go through your digestive system “without major incident,” according to Dr. Vladimir M. Kushnir, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Water works well for other hard-to-digest items, too, especially foods containing large amounts of fiber like corn kernels or chia seeds. Consuming several servings of these foods quickly without an increase in water intake to flush out the material can cause constipation, since fiber pulls water into the colon in order to produce softer, fuller stools, according to Dr. Kushnir. The fiber in foods alone won't help them pass through your body — upping your fluid intake is what'll make all the difference.
Just take what happened with the Chinese teenager who recently made headlines for the hundreds of bubble tea pearls found stuck in her digestive system, all the way from her stomach to her colon. It's unclear exactly what caused the pearls to stick — Dr. Kushnir theorizes that there was an addictive, while Dr. Raymond says the girl might've simply ingested far too much. Both agree that dehydration likely played a role. “I’ve seen patients experience a similar issue by eating raw chia seeds, which soaked up moisture from the gastrointestinal tract and then swelled up, causing an obstruction,” Dr. Raymond explains.
Both Dr. Kushnir and Dr. Raymond agree the tapioca incident is an outlier, noting that a regular cup of bubble tea contains anywhere from 10 to 15 pearls, so even a couple servings a day won’t do any harm. You don't need to avoid having tapioca pearls, nor other possibly hard-to-digest items like seeds, nuts, or gum. Your digestive tract is designed to move things along pretty smoothly — provided that you drink enough water, that is.