Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology, Series #127

Clogged Feeding Tubes: A Clinician’s Thorn

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Clogged feeding tubes are responsible for significant lost delivery of enteral feeding. They also increase risks and costs to patients in the event that they must be replaced. This article will present evidence-based guidelines to clinicians for feeding tube clog prevention and declogging. The current products and techniques for declogging feeding tubes will be discussed with emphasis on practical declogging methods.


Enteral feeding tubes are a lifeline for those patients who rely on them every day for nutrition, hydration and medication administration. According to the American Society for Enteral and Parenteral Nutrition (ASPEN), data from 2009 revealed that more than 245,000 patients per year require at least a temporary feeding tube during a hospital stay, along with another nearly 31,000 who are on enteral nutrition at home; numbers are not available for what are surely many thousands more in long term care facilities.1 Estimates of the incidence of clogged feeding tubes range widely, from 12.5 – 45% over the life of a tube.1-4 The cost of supplies, nursing care, and confirmatory abdominal x-rays required for simple nasoenteric tube replacement is therefore significant when multiplied across such a large scale, and this is not even to speak of the dollars that could be saved by preventing the need for more involved tube replacements such as via fluoroscopy or endoscopy. Though reliable data on the healthcare costs of tube replacement are scarce, a single trip to fluoroscopy to replace a clogged J-arm at our facility can cost upwards of $1,000, for example.

As many clinicians know all too well, clogged feeding tubes may result from several factors, including narrow tube diameter, insufficient water flushes, and inattention to proper medication administration.3 There are many anecdotal practices to declog feeding tubes such as using cranberry juice, cola, meat tenderizer and enzymes such as pancrealipase, papain, and chymotrypsin, but several studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of these remedies.5,6 A review of the literature indicates that the best way to manage clogged feeding tubes is by preventing them,1,2,7 but in the event that a feeding tube does become occluded, there are safe and effective methods established for restoring tube patency. Declogging methods include warm water flushes, enzymatic clog dissolvers, and mechanical clog removal tools, all of which are reviewed here. Suggestions for how to avoid clogged tubes in the first place are outlined as well. Declogging

Despite a lack of evidence to support them, many practices persist regarding how to “properly” unclog a feeding tube. As is often true, the internet is as much a source of misinformation as it is of reliable advice when it comes to unclogging feeding tubes. A casual search, such as one that a home patient might undertake, yields erroneous and sometimes even unsafe information, including recommendations to use hot water, coffee, carbonated beverages, pipe cleaners, and tenderizer. These common but unsupported methods were repeated often on a number of different sites. Notably, these are only examples from a recent search, and some sites do offer the internet user sound advice; the danger lies in the lay person using an ineffective even unsafe method, which in the worst case could lead to damaged GI mucosa, or more likely, a costly trip to the emergency department for a new tube. Water

Research clearly supports water as the best choice for initial declogging efforts, as carbonated beverages, juices, and meat tenderizer have been shown to be ineffective.5,8,9 In fact, because of their acidic pH, juices and carbonated beverages may even cause formula protein precipitation within the tube, making the clog worse or leading to more clogging later on.2 When clogs do occur, and they will, it is best to attempt clearance immediately using warm water and a gentle back and forth motion with the plunger of the syringe.2 Alternating pressure and suction with the syringe should not be done with great force because ruptured feeding tubes have occurred.2 Thus, syringes of 30 mL or larger are appropriate for gastrostomy tubes, but a 60 mL syringe should be used with smaller-French nasoenteric �2012 Actuated Medical, Inc. + 310 Rolling Ridge Drive + Bellefonte, PA 16823 USA or jejunostomy tubes since smaller syringes generate excessive pressure.1,10 After instilling the lukewarm water, clamp the tube and let it soak for up to 20 minutes if a stubborn clog does not immediately allow for the back on forth motion.


If water does not work, then enzyme solutions are a second-line option. Current products in the United States include Viokace and Clog Zapper™. Aside from Viokace, all other pancrealipase brands available in the U.S., such as Creon and Zenpep, are enteric coated and therefore cannot be used for this off-label purpose. Since it requires a prescription, Viokace is primarily used only in institutional or clinic settings unless the patient already has it at home for pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy. To use, one tablet of Viokace must be crushed and dissolved with one 324 mg nonenteric-coated tablet of sodium bicarbonate (or 1/8 teaspoon baking soda) and 5 mL water in order to create the alkaline pH for clog dissolving. Clog Zapper™ is a commercially available product from Corpak that requires only water for preparation and may be recommended for home use with training.11

Mechanical Devices

There are currently three approved mechanical devices for clearing feeding tubes. The Bard brush and the Bionix Feeding Tube Declogger are for use only in shorter tubes such as gastrostomy and jejunostomy tubes, not nasoenteric tubes. The Bard brush, which is designed to fit 20 Fr and larger PEG tubes, is a flexible nylon stem with soft bristles on the end that are intended to minimize mucosal injury.12 Its recommended use is actually prophylactic tube cleaning and it is not recommended as a tool to clear clogs, though it does have the advantage of being commercially available online. The Bionix, on the other hand, is specifically designed to remove clogs. A flexible plastic stem with a “screw and thread design,” this tool comes in varied sizes to fit gastrostomy or jejunostomy tubes sizes 14 to 24 French.13 However, it is only for use by trained professionals in a medical setting.

Finally, the latest device is the TubeClear® system, which only recently received FDA clearance for use in hospital settings and may be a remedy for resolving clogged nasoenteric, gastrostomy, and jejunostomy tubes sizes 10-18 Fr (see Table 1).14 TubeClear® uses single use stems paired with a control box that plugs into AC power to create a jackhammer-like motion inside the tube. The advantage is its use in long, narrow Dobhoffstyle tubes, which are more prone to clogging in the first place and which are time consuming and uncomfortable to replace. TubeClear® also has stems in development for clearing 8 Fr tubes and Gastro-Jejunostomy tubes – the most costly and time consuming to replace, however, these versions are not yet FDA cleared. A summary of declogging tips is presented in Table 2. See Table 3 for commercially available products.

Clog Prevention

As is true in so many cases in the medical setting, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While clogged feeding tubes are impossible to prevent 100% of the time, there are a few simple procedures that will save patient discomfort, time, lost feeding delivery, lots of frustration, and money.

Tube Diameter

Common sense tells us that the smaller the tube diameter patient comfort and should therefore be considered, (and also the longer the tube), the more likely the tube particularly if smaller tubes have failed. In addition, we is to clog. While flexible, small-bore feeding tubes are use a 24 Fr PEG with a 12 Fr jejunal extension for the the obvious choice for nasoenteric feeding (as opposed same reason. Similarly, 12 Fr jejunal extension tubes to Salem SumpTM type tubes), our anecdotal experience through 24 Fr PEGs clog significantly less often than at our institution has been that 12 Fr feeding tubes clog 8-10 Fr tubes, and some case series have borne out this less often than 8 or 10 Fr tubes without sacrificing observation.15


Combining a clear plan for medication delivery with flushing will limit clogged tubes. Medication lists should be given a thorough review by a pharmacist to promote the use of available liquid alternatives; to limit the use of capsules and extended release forms; and to identify which pills can be finely crushed using a mortar and pestle (or other crushing device such as the Silent Knight Pill Crusher by Medline Industries) and dissolved.6 Pharmacists might also suggest alternative delivery modes such as intravenous, subcutaneous, intramuscular, transdermal, or rectal in order to limit the number of different medications that must be flushed down the feeding tube.3,16,17 Finally, pharmacists should be enlisted to advise regarding incompatible medications and when they should be separated by 30-60 minutes.3

Water Flushes

Routine, proactive flushing during feeding and medication administration is the best way to prevent many clogged tubes, yet up to 57% of nurses do not flush before giving medications according to various reports.3,16-18 Therefore, proper flushing instructions for both home and institution feeding should be clear to the end provider or caregiver. There are variations in practice such as using sterile water when the tap water is not proven safe, and varied flushing frequencies, but consistent flushing before and after medication administration and bolus feedings, and periodically with continuous or cyclic feedings, is the most important intervention to prevent clogging.

For continuous feedings, a minimum volume 30 mL water flush should be administered at least every 8 hours to maintain tube patency and more as indicated for hydration needs.1,16,19 Enteral feedings should be stopped and the line flushed prior to giving medications and again before turning the feedings back on. For bolus or intermittent feedings, at least 60 mL should be flushed before and after the enteral formula. The same goes for medications: flush 5, 15, or 30 mL or more between each medication.1,3,16,19 Finally, if medications are given at the same time as formula boluses, they should all be separated by water, i.e., water-medicationwater-formula-water. See Table 4 for the University of Virginia Health Systems handout for home patients. Table 5 summarizes the recommendations for clog prevention.


Clogged feeding tubes increase health care costs and decrease nutrient delivery. Consistent and scheduled
flushing of all types of feeding tubes is the best defense
against clogs. However, while avoiding clogged feeding tubes is a worthy goal, they can and will occur. When they do, the front line for declogging is to use lukewarm water as described, and failing that, commercial products are available. Importantly, there is a gap in health care provider knowledge when it comes to best practices for declogging feeding tubes, and addressing this barrier will help prevent lost nutrition for patients, along with wasted time and money. Finally, as declogging devices become more sophisticated and mainstream, tube replacements due to occlusion will hopefully become a rare occurrence.

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