A feeding tube can be inserted via the nose into the stomach (nasogastric tube) or directly into the stomach (PEG tube) to provide food and water.
A feeding tube might be a good idea in cases of illnesses (for example, stroke) where swallowing is affected. The tube might be inserted temporarily where recovery is expected, or permanently where the ability to swallow will not improve enough to return to normal eating and drinking. A person may feel that their quality of life is otherwise reasonable and they would like to have a long term feeding tube.
As part of the natural process of dying, like in cases of advanced cancer and dementia, people lose the desire to eat or drink. This is normal. Dehydration may occur but is not unpleasant. (This is unlike thirst in a normal situation). Many people in this circumstance can swallow. In these circumstances the use of a feeding tube may not help, as it cannot change the underlying disease processes, and usually does not stop death from occurring.
Some side effects can be associated with tube feeding. The need to insert tubes can be uncomfortable, and the tubes may need to be replaced from time to time. Tube feeding can cause stomach distension and discomfort, and too much fluid in the body. The risk of developing pneumonia and breathing issues is usually higher when a feeding tube is used.
Sometimes, a feeding tube just prolongs the dying process, and be very distressing for the person and their family. Especially in cases of advanced dementia, there may be a need to use medication to sedate a person, or to restrain their arms so that the person does not pull their tube out.
Feeding is a chemical mixture of nutrients. The amount of fluid in the body and the level of some chemicals in the blood need to be closely monitored, using blood tests from time to time.
If a person is unable to swallow enough food and fluid to maintain nutrition and a tube feeding is not done, the person will die. This may happen quickly or more slowly, depending on the person, whether they can swallow at all, and what is wrong with them. They usually do not feel thirsty or hungry. Usually the person will gradually become unconscious. If the mouth becomes dry it is possible to moisten the lips with fluid on a swab or with sips of water or ice. Medications are used if needed to treat any pain or discomfort that occurs during the dying process.