Originally created 08/04/98

Swallowing gum can cause digestive problems



Turns out your mom was right -- swallowing your gum could be bad for you.

In perhaps the first clinical study of its kind, doctors in Orlando, Fla., documented three frightening cases of children who frequently swallowed chewing gum and then had it clog up their intestines or lodge in their throats. The study was released Monday on Pediatrics electronic pages, the online journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In one case, a 4-year-old boy was constipated for two years before the doctors at the Nemours Children's Clinic in Orlando removed a solid wad that had been literally gumming up the works. Doctors later discovered the boy had been chewing and swallowing five to seven pieces of gum a day. In the case of a 4-year-old girl whose parents used gum as a reward for good behavior, doctors solved her constipation by removing a "multi-colored" mass of gum.

Doctors have known for years that gum is not really digestible but had little evidence it was a potential hazard.

"Chewing gum is so prevalent that we in the medical community may not be as aware of the possibilities as we should be," said co-author David Bailey, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Nemours.

Still, the authors are careful not to blow it out of proportion.

"We certainly do not want to alarm anyone about the occasional use of chewing gum," Dr. Bailey said. "I am concerned about the regular and frequent use of gum in children who swallow it, and children under 5 will swallow it instead of spitting it out."

But area pediatricians point out that kids have been swallowing gum for decades and very few have had these kinds of problems. Still, the study provides some answer to a common question from parents.

"This is something parents always ask about," said Jack Benjamin, professor of pediatrics at Medical College of Georgia. "It's just that up to now, there hasn't been any data to point to."

Still, in 32 years of seeing kids, and in the 13 years Reggie Pilcher has been treating kids, neither had seen anything like this.

"It is an interesting series of cases but I don't think this has proved to be a common problem," Dr. Benjamin said.

"When you think of the millions upon millions of chewing a piece of gum and swallowing it, (if it were hazardous) it would be a major medical alert," said Dr. Pilcher, chairman of pediatrics at Columbia Augusta Medical Center.

All of the children cited in the study had problems with constipation or poor digestion prior to the problems with gum, Dr. Bailey said. And that should provide an additional caution to parents who know their children already have those kinds of problems, he said.

If nothing else, it is another thing for doctors to check out.

"It may be a larger problem than they're aware of," he said.

The study, while not conclusive, should please generations of mothers and grandmothers who have preached against gum swallowing.

"My grandmother used to tell me if I swallowed my gum it would stick my soul to my body and I'd have a hard time getting into heaven," Dr. Bailey said, laughing. "We're trying to prove some common sense here."

And the study's ultimate conclusion should come as no surprise, Dr. Benjamin said.

"Mothers are always right," he said. "They didn't need to do a study. They just knew."