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Everything you need to know about a stoma

Stomas are life-changing, but also life-saving for many people.
Stomas are life-changing, but also life-saving for many people.

Stomas are life-changing. But for the majority of people who undergo surgery to have one created, they are also life-saving.

Around one in 500 people are currently living with a stoma – also known as an ostomy – in the UK.

Although more common than you’d think, stomas can sometimes go unspoken about, meaning many people may not even be aware of what one is.

What is a stoma?

A graphic showing the three types of ostomies, Ileostomy, colostomy and urostomy

Created during surgery, a stoma is an opening in the stomach that is connected to either the digestive or urinary system.

Surgeons can create a stoma using the small or large intestine, or ureters.

If a stoma is formed using the small intestine it’s called an ileostomy, or colostomy if the large intestine is used. It’s called a urostomy if it helps to divert urine.

What does a stoma do?

An ostomy bag being placed over a stoma
An ostomy bag being placed over a stoma.

The stoma allows waste (faeces or urine) to leave the body via the opening in the stomach – as opposed to the anus or urethra.

Where does the waste from a stoma go?

A person with t-shirt pulled up to reveal a colostomy bag

A pouch is worn over the stoma to collect the waste. The pouch must be worn at all times as a person cannot control the output. The bag can be emptied into the toilet throughout the day, or changed completely to wear a fresh bag.

What does a stoma look like?

A stoma on a person's stomach

A stoma is usually small, pink or red and fleshy in appearance. It might sit fairly flat on the stomach or protrude out slightly. People often compare it to a strawberry and say it feels like the inside of a person’s mouth.

Can a person feel a stoma?

A person touching the stoma area

No, stomas have no nerve endings so a person cannot feel or control the waste. However, sometimes a person may feel pressure on the skin around a stoma when waste is exiting the body.

Do you have to eat differently with a stoma?

A graphic showing the food groups: milk, vegetables, fruits, seafood, drinks, meat and bread

Not always. Every person is different and while some people may not be able to digest some foods easily, others may be able to eat anything they want. Some people with stomas may find that certain foods block their stomas.

What happens when a stoma blocks?

A woman with arms holding her stomach

A blockage, also known as a bowel obstruction, means the stoma slows down in producing output or stops completely. It can cause a person waves of pain and they may even vomit.

There a number of ways to try unblock a stoma at home before seeking medical advice.

Can you see a stoma bag through a person’s clothes?

A person pulling up a t-shirt to reveal a colostomy bag under jeans

Tight clothing may show the outline of an ostomy bag if it’s full, but usually you could walk past a person on the street and have no idea they have a stoma.

Can you smell the waste in a stoma bag?

A stoma bag

No – not unless the waste is being emptied into the toilet. All stoma bags have a charcoal filter inside which prevents odours from escaping the bag.

Can you live a normal life with a stoma?

A stoma bag with the words 'a colostomy saved my life' written on it

Yes. People living with a stoma can still go to work, fall pregnant, have sex, go swimming or exercise. Many people still live full and happy lives with a stoma.


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