How should I look after my stoma?

profile picture of Rachael Mayfield Blake
Freelance Health Editor
14 October 2022
Next review due October 2025

A stoma is an opening, made by a surgeon, on the front of your tummy (abdomen). It allows waste to collect in a pouch (bag) on the outside of your body. Read on to find out more about living with a stoma, including how to care for a stoma.

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What is a stoma?

A stoma sits on the surface of the skin on your tummy (abdomen), usually low down on one side. It sticks out a little, above the surface of the skin. You won’t feel pain, or any other sensation, from the section of tissue that sticks out.

When is a stoma needed?

You may need a stoma if you have a certain condition, such as:

The stoma may be temporary and reversed later, or it may be permanent.

The main types of stoma are:

  • ileostomy – an opening from your small bowel, to allow poo to leave your body without passing through your large bowel
  • colostomy – an opening from your large bowel, to allow poo to leave your body without passing through your back passage (anus)
  • urostomy – an opening for your ureters (tubes that carry pee from your kidneys), to allow pee to leave your body without passing through your bladder

How does a stoma bag work?

A stoma bag collects poo or pee and sits on the outside of your body. You then empty the stoma bag to remove the waste, usually down the toilet. There are two main types of stoma bag:

  • drainable bags – you can empty these through an opening at the bottom of the bag so you don’t need to change the stoma bag so regularly
  • closed bags – you can’t empty these, but you change them when they're getting full

Stoma bags are all designed to fit discreetly under your clothing, be easy to change, and to not leak or smell.

How do you take care of a stoma?

At first, you may be concerned about how you’ll manage your stoma. It may take you a while to learn, but you’ll have lots of help and support from a nurse with stoma care training.

You need to look after the skin around your stoma carefully, so it doesn’t become sore. There are two reasons this might happen.

  • Contact with the contents of the bag. This can happen when your stoma naturally shrinks or changes shape over time.
  • A reaction to the adhesive on the stoma bag can also affect your stoma.

Make sure to clean and dry your skin when you change your stoma bag. It’s best to use recommended products to clean your skin. This is because perfumed soaps and lotions that contain alcohol can make your skin sore. You can just use warm water. Pat your skin dry after cleaning, rather than rubbing, to avoid damaging it.

How often should a stoma bag be changed?

You’ll need to empty your stoma bag to remove the waste – a stoma care nurse will show you how to do this. The way you empty the bag will depend on the type of stoma bag you have. It’s best to empty the bag when it’s between a third and a half full.

How often you need to empty or change your bag can vary between people. It also depends on the type of stoma you have. It’s a good idea to get into a routine for changing your stoma bag. As you get used to your stoma, you’ll find out when the best time is for you to change the bag.

Living with a stoma

If you have a stoma, it may take a little while to adjust. But you should then be able to lead a full and active life. You should also be able to return to your normal daily activities after you've fully recovered from your stoma operation. This can take a little while, usually three months at least.

Having a stoma can make you feel a bit down. It can also affect your body image. And it’s natural to worry about possible leakage or smells from the stoma. Your stoma care nurse will support you through the emotional aspects of having a stoma. You may find it useful to talk to other people with stomas and may be in a similar situation. And if you have any problems with your stoma, your stoma care nurse should be able to help.

What should I avoid with a stoma?

If you have a bowel stoma, you should be able to eat and drink as normal shortly after your operation. If you eat a healthy balanced diet, it will help your bowel get back to working normally. Over time, you’ll learn if there are foods you can’t eat. It’s important to drink enough fluids and eat high-fibre foods to make sure you don’t become constipated.

Tell your pharmacist about your stoma before you buy any over-the-counter medicines. This is because, if you have a stoma, you might not be able to take some types of medicine, such as slow-release tablets.

You can carry on with most sports and activities after your stoma operation, including swimming. You’ll need to start with something gentle like walking. Then build up your strength gradually. If you do anything strenuous, or a contact sport, it’s best to ask your doctor or stoma care nurse for advice. The same advice applies to your job, too. Your employer may need to make some adaptations to help you work. And if your job involves heavy lifting, you may need to wear a support garment to protect your tummy.

Travelling with a stoma

With a bit of preparation, you can still enjoy travelling with a stoma. Here are some tips to help you on your journey.

  • Take double the amount of stoma supplies you think you’ll need. That way, you’ll have enough to cope with anything that affects how often you need to change your bag. For example, a different diet.
  • Carry plenty of spare supplies in your hand luggage if you’re flying. Contact the airline to see if you can get an extra luggage allowance, and if any certification is needed.
  • Consider taking along some medicines you may need for diarrhoea or constipation.
  • Make sure you drink plenty of fluids (ideally bottled water) to avoid dehydration in hot countries.
  • If flying, avoid any foods and drinks that give you wind for a day before you travel. This is because the change in air pressure on the flight can mean you pass more wind.

We understand it's important to get back to feeling yourself again as quickly as possible. That's why with our health insurance you can get fast access to the treatment and support you need, when you need it. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance.

profile picture of Rachael Mayfield Blake
Rachael Mayfield-Blake (she/her)
Freelance Health Editor



Mrs Sara Badvie, Consultant surgeon

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