What Really Happens When You Swallow Gum?

You'll be relieved to hear that it doesn't stay in your body for seven years.

The human body is a marvel in many ways. Just consider the fact that it can produce millions of blood cells in under 60 seconds. But it won’t harbor chewing gum for seven years despite what you may have heard on the playground. “This is about as scientifically true as swallowing watermelon seeds will make you grow a watermelon in your stomach,” says Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. Let’s dive into the truth behind what happens when you swallow gum.

What does your body do with gum?

Chewing gum is made up of several parts: The chewy part that is the gum base, plus flavorings, sweeteners, and preservatives. The human body can’t digest the gum base, but it can digest all the additives that make gum taste more appealing.

That doesn’t mean the gum base will be stuck in your body for years, though, leading to stomach or digestive issues. The body does a good job of getting rid of non-nutritious things it doesn’t need. It will eventually move materials like gum that can’t be digested out of the body.

The gum base doesn’t stick around for long; gum rarely stays in your body for more than a week. This is because the stomach periodically empties its contents into the small intestine, so if you swallowed gum, it would then move to the colon, and finally pass in your stool, according to The Ohio State University.

Is it dangerous to swallow gum?

There are benefits to chewing gum, but there isn’t much research that shows swallowing gum can do damage to your health. In rare circumstances, if you swallow lots of gum at one time or many pieces of gum in a short period, you can experience a digestive blockage. It’s even more likely to occur if you swallow gum at the same time you swallow other items that can’t be digested, such as the shells from sunflower seeds.

“Repeatedly swallowing gum can lead to a bezoar, a small mass of indigestible material that can potentially lead to a bowel obstruction,” says Edwin McDonald, a gastroenterologist and associate director of adult nutrition at the University of Chicago.

In a 1998 article published in Pediatrics, researchers analyzed three cases of children who developed intestinal tract and esophageal obstruction as a consequence of swallowing gum. One was a four-year-old boy who had a two-year history of constipation after swallowing five to seven pieces of gum every day; doctors removed a bowel obstruction. Another young girl had a multicolored mass removed. (She was rewarded with chewing gum many times a day and often swallowed it to get to another piece.) The youngest case was a one-and-a-half-year-old girl who had swallowed gum and four stacked coins. The mass was lodged in her esophagus. The study authors reached a somewhat obvious conclusion: “In summary, chewing gum should not be swallowed and not given to children who cannot understand this point.”

How often can you safely swallow gum?

So can you occasionally swallow chewing gum and be okay? Yes. Should you? Probably not. “It would be wise to avoid making this a habit,” according to experts at Yale. “In order to avoid a potentially sticky situation, it is good practice to spit out your chewing gum.”

Now that you know what happens when you swallow gum, here are 21 more myths about food that officially have been busted.

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Sources
  • Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics
  • The Ohio State University: “Medical Mythbusters – Does gum really stay in your stomach for 7 years?”
  • Nemours Foundation TeensHealth: “Does Swallowing Gum Cause Intestinal Problems?”
  • Edwin McDonald, a gastroenterologist and associate director of adult nutrition at the University of Chicago
  • Pediatrics: “Chewing Gum Bezoars of the Gastrointestinal Tract”
  • Yale Scientific: “Can gum really stay in your stomach for 7 years?”

Brittany Gibson
Brittany was a digital editorial intern for Reader's Digest and now contributes to RD.com as a freelance writer. Her stories have been picked up by Yahoo, AOL, MSN, INSIDER, Business Insider, Best Health, and other websites. In addition to writing for RD.com, she has also written for Westchester Magazine and uloop.com.