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What is a Stoma?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2014
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A stoma is an opening in the body which connects the inside of the body to the outside world. Stomas can be either natural or artificially created, and they play a variety of roles in the body. The term “stoma” also refers more generally in biology to openings; plants, for example, intake nutrients through stomata in their leaves and stems.

The mouth is a well-known example of a naturally formed stoma, as are the ears, nostrils, and anus. In some cases, it is necessary to create an artificial stoma, in which case the suffix “-ostomy” is attached to the description of the medical procedure to indicate that a stoma was created. The colostomy is probably the most common form of surgery which requires the creation of a stoma, and it involves bypassing part of the large intestine and creating a new artificial opening to cope with body waste.

Ostomy ports are also, as the name implies, a form of stoma. Ports can be placed in patients in which regular access to a specific area of the body is needed; a port may accommodate a feeding tube, for example, or open up access to a vein for medications. These semi-permanent medical devices are less prone to infection than more temporary means, and they can be more comfortable for the patient in the long term.

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Stomata have been created for thousands of years, and they may be among the oldest of surgical treatments. Trepanation, the practice of drilling into the skull to relieve pressure, is a type of stoma, and archaeological evidence reveals that people have been trepanning each other for a very long time. Early trepanation surgeries may have been performed with a mystical intent, rather than a medical one; many trepanned skulls were clearly those of shamans and other religious figures.

Because stomata connect the inside of the body with the outside world, they pose certain risks for the body, in addition to helping it eat, hear, smell, and evacuate wastes. Each opening represents a potential line of entry for harmful organisms, and some stomata are lined with delicate mucus membranes which put them at even more at risk of infection. Both natural and artificial stomata can get infected if not properly cared for; children usually learn hygiene at a young age to care for the stomata they are born with, while people who get a stoma through surgery are usually given detailed aftercare instructions.

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It's so important to be considerate of those who have artificial stomas, particularly those who have just had them surgically done. They are trained to care for them, but it is a mental adjustment as well as a physical one. Think of it like this: Can you imagine getting a new mouth or a new ear?

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