The Worst That Can Happen When You Swallow Gum
This is one of those questions that is asked equally by all—everyone’s heard the myth that gum stays in your gut for seven years if you swallow it. If you’re a parent, stay calm. Gum does not stay in your gut for seven years, but it doesn’t digest, either.
If you (or your kid) swallows a stick of gum here and there, it shouldn’t be a problem. If there’s a chronic gum eating problem at hand, you should keep reading.
Rubber Is Indigestible
In the beginning, chewing gum was made of chicle, a latex sap from the sapodilla tree. There were other things it could be made of—such as paraffin wax—but chicle was the best option. It is basically the same thing as natural rubber. It doesn’t break down, even with lots of chewing.
Sometime after World War II, scientists figured out how to create gum base synthetically. It’s essentially synthetic rubber. Just like chicle, it doesn’t break down much at all with chewing. On top of that, it’s easier to add flavors and colors to the synthetic stuff.
If you can’t beat it while chewing it, you’re surely not going to be able to break it down with a little gut acid and some churning in your stomach. If you swallow gum—whether it’s chicle or the synthetic stuff—it’s not going to change much from the beginning of the journey to the end.
If, that is, you don’t swallow too much gum.
The gastrointestinal system consists of everything from the lips to the anus. That’s the journey your gum has to travel if you swallow it.
Typically, food breaks down as it goes through the GI tract, and the system is made for that. For that reason, the esophagus is much more robust than the small intestines. The esophagus doesn’t really absorb anything. It’s just a tube to carry food (or gum, which is definitely not food) to the stomach.
The stomach does some of the hard work. It mixes food with acids and churns it pretty violently until the food is turned into a slurry of juices and solids. That slurry is drained into about 20 feet of small intestines. In the small intestines, the solid matter continues to break down with the help of bacteria in the gut. Different nutrients are absorbed through the small intestines, but water mostly stays in the slurry to make it easier to move through the system.
At the end of the small intestines, what’s left—at this point, we’ll just call it poop—is transferred into the large intestines, also known as the colon. Water is absorbed through the walls of the colon until the poop reaches just the right consistency to be expelled. If you’re old enough to read this, then you know how it ends.
Gum doesn’t work like digestible food. It is not going to break down. What goes into the intestines is exactly the same consistency as what went into the esophagus. Depending on how much of it is in there and the health of the system, the presence of gum could grind the whole thing to a painful halt.
Too Much of a Good Thing
There isn’t a lot of evidence to show how much swallowed gum is too much, but there are reported case studies showing that chronically swallowing gum could, well, gum up the works.
In an article published in the journal Pediatrics in 1998, pediatricians presented three cases of kids who had swallowed gum and suffered intestinal blockages. All of the kids were chronic gum chewers. The youngest was a girl 1½ years old. That young lady didn’t just swallow gum. In her case, the gum was responsible for holding together four stacked coins she also swallowed. The whole mess got stuck in her esophagus not very far below her throat. Doctors had to break apart the stack of coins in order to remove them.
The other two kids, both 4½ years old, regularly swallowed gum. In both cases, the gum had clumped together and created bowel obstructions. One of the obstructions was even described in the article as “multi-colored.”
How Long Does Swallowed Gum Stay in the System?
There is a long-held urban myth that gum will stay in your system for seven years if swallowed. That’s just silly. If it was true, someone would’ve figured it out by now. Nearly every person in modern society has swallowed a piece of gum at some point. Doctors should be finding gum in most GI tracts if it had that much staying power.
As long as it doesn’t clump up in giant multicolored balls of poop, gum passes through the system in less than a week. The flavor, coloring, and sugar might be gone, but the gum base will be the same as it went in.
It does have other negative effects. Just the act of gum chewing leads to swallowing more saliva and, more importantly, more air. Researchers aren’t exactly sure how much that affects gas and bloating, but it isn’t good news.
On the other hand, it’s possible that chewing gum after bowel surgery could speed healing. The results are mixed, but even researchers who didn’t find a benefit say that chewing gum after surgery is safe. Let’s be honest: as treatments go, it’s pretty pleasant.
So, chew gum if you like. Just be sure to spit it out.
- Byrne CM, Zahid A, Young JM, Solomon MJ, Young CJ. Gum Chewing Aids Bowel Function Return and Analgesic Requirements After Bowel Surgery: A Randomised Controlled Trial. Colorectal Dis. 2017 Oct 20. doi:10.1111/codi.13930.
- Silva AC, Aprile LR, Dantas RO. EFFECT OF GUM CHEWING ON AIR SWALLOWING, SALIVA SWALLOWING AND BELCHING. Arq Gastroenterol. 2015 Jul-Sep;52(3):190-4. doi:10.1590/S0004-28032015000300007.
- Mathews, Jennifer P. Chicle. (2009). University of Arizona Press.
- Milov, D., Andres, J., Erhart, N., & Bailey, D. (1998). Chewing Gum Bezoars of the Gastrointestinal Tract. Pediatrics, 102(2), e22-e22.