What Is the Difference between an Ostomy and a Stoma?

Erin J. Hill
Erin J. Hill

Although many believe that an ostomy and a stoma are the same things, they are actually two related but different entities. An ostomy is an opening, often in the abdomen below the belly button, that is put there surgically in the treatment of a medical condition. Sometimes an ostomy may be in the neck, such as in the treatment of throat or neck cancer. A stoma refers to the small portion of intestine that pokes through the ostomy.

An ostomy and a stoma are both often necessary in the treatment of certain conditions of the colon, primarily colorectal cancers. A portion of the large intestine is generally removed or rerouted and the small intestine is redirected to a hole in the lower stomach. The hole is then connected to a tube and a pouch so that digestive materials exit through the ostomy rather than through the rectum. This pouch must be emptied several times per day. The ostomy and stoma may be temporary or permanent, depending on the condition.

The stoma is the portion of small intestine which bulges from the ostomy. It can be directly connected to a tube which acts as an exit for digested food materials. This digested food is usually much more watery than fecal matter would typically be because the large intestine is responsible for absorbing the majority of water found in food. Patients may have to empty their pouches every couple of hours for the first few weeks, and then slightly less often as time passes.

Some medical references refer to an ostomy and a stoma as the same thing, so patients can generally assume that either of these phrases refers to both the opening and the small amount of intestine connected to it. Both are connected and cannot exist without each other, so they are often mistaken for one another. The entire area has to be kept clean to avoid infection. This can be done with frequent cleanings and by choosing tubes and accessories that are well fitted to avoid leakage.

Both an ostomy and a stoma should also be kept clean by emptying the pouch carefully over the toilet and by making sure the tube is attached securely. Patients should ask their doctors which supplies to purchase and how often to empty their stoma pouches. Moisturizers or protective ointments may also be placed around the opening to keep skin from becoming chapped in the case of leaks.

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