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What Is a Lavage?

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  • Written By: Franklin Jeffrey
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2016
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In Latin, the word lavare is translated as "to wash." Derivatives of this word include the English word, lavatory, which means a place to wash, and the French word, lavage, which means the same as its Latin root. A medical lavage is the washing of a part of the body by introducing sterile liquids into the area; the liquids do not remain in the body, but are removed by either natural or artificial means. Although physicians may order lavages performed on a variety of areas and for a variety of reasons, the primary purpose of a lavage is to irrigate or flush the target area.

The only lavage that most people will ever perform on themselves is a nasal irrigation. Although patients may purchase a commercially packaged nasal lavage system, the procedure can be performed with a bulb syringe, some sterile or distilled water and sea salt, depending on the physician's instructions. After mixing the salt into the water, the syringe is filled with the solution. While in the shower or standing over a sink, the patient leans forward, inserts the tip of the syringe and squeezes. The solution typically washes through one nostril and exits the other, removing irritants and mucus as it goes.

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Not too many years ago, patients who swallowed a poison or who took a potentially lethal drug overdose might be subjected to a gastric lavage. In this procedure, a tube is inserted through the nose or mouth, and liquids are introduced and then suctioned out. Gastric lavages have fallen out of favor with the medical community for poisoning cases, but are still used occasionally to prepare a patient for gastrointestinal surgery, lower the core temperature in cases of severe hyperthermia or to test for internal bleeding. Only trained medical professionals should perform a gastric irrigation.

One type of lavage that was once a popular fad is the colon cleanse. A tube is inserted in the rectum and the lower digestive tract is flushed with liquid. The primary differences between an enema and a colon cleanses are that a colon cleanse uses significantly more liquid and the tool used to insert the liquid penetrates much deeper. In some states, only licensed professionals may perform colon cleansings, as the procedure carries the risk of torn membranes and infection.

Arthroscopic lavages are sometimes part of minimally invasive surgeries performed on joints. Sterile liquids are introduced to flush out bone chips that are floating within the joint. A lavage may also be necessary to remove tissue fragments removed during the surgery.

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