What are stoma and ostomy bags? Doctors explain

Studio shot of a woman, that show her abdomen and a ostomy bag. Cancer Concept.
A stoma is an opening from an area inside your body to the outside, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Photo: Getty Images)

You may not know the word for it, but odds are you've seen a stoma bag before. But while these pouches can be lifesavers for people with certain health conditions, there's a lot the general public doesn't know about them.

Whether you've seen someone with a stoma bag and wondered what it was about, or have a condition that raises your risk of needing one, it's understandable to have questions. Here's what you need to know about these medical devices.

What is a stoma?

A stoma is an opening from an area inside your body to the outside, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. "'Stoma' means 'mouth' or 'opening,'" Dr. Ashkan Farhadi, a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Life.

A stoma is used to treat some digestive and urinary diseases, he explains, and can be either permanent, when an organ needs to be removed, or temporary, when an organ needs time to heal.

A stoma isn't the same thing as an ostomy, but the two are related. "Ostomy is the procedure to create the stoma," Farhadi says. The ostomy specifically creates the stoma to help waste leave the body, typically out of the small intestine, colon, rectum or bladder, the U.S. National Library of Medicine says.

The two terms are used interchangeably sometimes, though, Dr. Shaham Mumtaz, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "Ostomy can be said at times to refer to the stoma after the procedure has been completed," he says.

About one in 500 people in the U.S. live with an ostomy, according to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation.

What are the most common reasons why someone would need a stoma?

Stomas aren't as common as they used to be. "We used to have a dedicated nurse at the hospital for stomas and that is no longer the case because they're happening less," Farhadi says. Still, there are a few reasons why someone might need a stoma, Dr. Lukasz Kwapisz, an assistant professor of medicine - gastroenterology at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. He lists the following as more common reasons:

  • Colon cancer or rectal cancer

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis

  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), an inherited disorder that causes cancer of the colon and rectum

  • A blockage in the intestine (called a bowel obstruction)

  • An injury that damages the intestine

  • Recurrent diverticulitis, a condition that leads to the infection or inflammation of pouches that can form in your intestines

  • Congenital abnormalities of the intestines

What's the purpose of a stoma bag?

A stoma bag's job is pretty simple. "The bag has a purpose to hold in stool and waste products," Kwapisz says. "It functions to help each patient be hygienic and comfortable." When someone needs a stoma, waste products needs to make their way out of the body, but the gastrointestinal tract isn't connected in a way that lets them poop like other people. So, waste and stool comes out of the stoma and into the bag.

"There is no control of when stool will be moving out of the stoma, so the bag helps to collect this stool to keep things clean and prevent messes from occurring," Mumtaz says.

What's the difference between a stoma bag and an ostomy bag?

There's "no difference" between the two, Kwapisz says. Instead, these are just different terms for the same thing. Stoma and ostomy bags may also be referred to as colostomy bags.

"There are different types of bags for a stoma but ultimately a stoma bag or ostomy bag are really the same thing," Mumtaz says.

Is it ever painful or uncomfortable to have a stoma bag?

If everything is working as it should, "it generally should not be painful," Kwapisz says. But, he adds, sometimes the bag may not fit well and can cause discomfort for a patient.

"Stool can also get on the skin and cause irritation," Farhadi says. And, he points out, "it's very inconvenient" to wear a bag. "Gas can come out and make a noise," he explains. "You can feel that your bag is full and have to run to the bathroom to empty it."

How often do you have to empty a stoma bag?

Kwapisz says this is a common question he's asked. "The average I would say is around six to eight times, but some of my patients empty the stoma up to 10 times a day," he says. "Generally, the rule is to avoid the bag being more than half full and it’s best to empty when it’s a third full."

Can you lead a fairly normal life with a stoma bag?

Doctors say that, overall, you can lead a fairly normal life with a stoma bag. You can even swim with a stoma bag. "The appliance and bag is designed to be water-resistant and there should be no damage to the stoma site either," Kwapisz says.

"For some, this is a lifesaver," Farhadi says. "Having a bag allows them to live a normal life."

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