Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2017

A colostomy is a surgery that makes a temporary or permanent opening called a stoma. A stoma is a pathway from the large intestine to the outside of your abdomen. This helps solid waste and gas exit the body without passing through the rectum. The waste is collected in a pouch worn on the outside of your body.

What is the large intestine?

The large intestine, or large bowel, is made up of the colon and rectum. It is connected to the small intestine, also called the small bowel.

The small intestine digests nutrients and absorbs them into blood vessels. Such nutrients include proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

Remaining food that cannot be digested moves from the small intestine to the colon. The colon absorbs water from the waste and stores the waste until the next bowel movement.

Why do I need a colostomy?

People with certain types of cancer, such as colorectal cancer, may need a colostomy. You may need a colostomy if:

  • The large intestine is blocked or damaged

  • A part of the large intestine is surgically removed

  • A ruptured colon causes an abdominal infection

How long will I need a colostomy?

Most people who need a cancer-related colostomy only need it for a few months while the colon or rectum heals. However, some people may need a permanent colostomy.

Types of colostomy

Each type is named for the section of the colon in which it is needed.

  • Sigmoid colostomy. This is the most common type. It is located in the bottom portion of the large intestine. The sigmoid colon moves waste to the rectum. Sigmoid colostomies produce stool that is more solid and regular than other colostomies.

  • Transverse colostomy. The transverse colon crosses the top of the abdomen. Transverse stool is usually soft. This is because only a small portion of the colon has absorbed water from the indigestible material. This common type of colostomy has 3 versions:  

  • A loop colostomy. This colostomy creates a stoma through which stool exits. In this type, the colon stays connected to the rectum. As a result, patients will sometimes pass stool or gas through the rectum.

  • A single-barrel colostomy. This surgery removes the colon—including the rectum and anal opening—below the colostomy. This type of colostomy is permanent.

  • A double-barrel colostomy. This divides the colon into 2 ends that form separate stomas. Stool exits from one of the stomas. Mucus made by the colon exits from the other. This type of transverse colostomy is the least common.

  • Descending colostomy. The descending colon takes waste down the left side of the abdomen. The stool there is usually firm because it has moved through the functioning parts of the colon.

  • Ascending colostomy. The ascending colon extends from the beginning of the large intestine to the right side of the abdomen. In this procedure, only part of the colon remains functional. As a result, little water is absorbed from the waste. This means the discharge is usually liquid.

An ascending colostomy is rare. An ileostomy is more appropriate for this portion of the colon. An ileostomy is a procedure in which the small intestine is connected to the abdominal wall. An external pouch collects the waste.

What should I expect during surgery?

You will receive general anesthesia before the surgery. During the surgery, the surgeon attaches 1 end of the colon to a stoma in a place where you can see and care for it. Then the surgeon attaches the colostomy bag to the stoma.

The procedure may be done with:

  • A surgical incision, which is a large cut in the abdomen

  • Laparoscopic surgery, which involves less invasive small incisions. This method reduces pain and recovery time.

Surgery may include the following risks:

  • Bleeding inside the colon

  • Damage to nearby organs

  • Infection

  • Bleeding from the stoma

How long will it take to recover from surgery?

Most patients stay in the hospital for up to 1 week after the procedure. Complete recovery from a colostomy may take up to 2 months. During this time, you will have limits on what you can eat while the colon heals.

If the colostomy is temporary, you may need a reversal surgery after the colon has healed. This surgery usually takes place about 12 weeks later.

Colostomy care

Emptying your colostomy bag. Once you have recovered from surgery, you will need to empty the colostomy bag several times per day. It is best to empty it when the bag is less than half full.

You will not be able to control when stool and gas move into the pouch. Amounts of stool and gas deposited into the pouch will vary based on the type of colostomy and your diet. Your health care team can provide information on food choices to help reduce gas.

There are several types of colostomy bags. Options include open-end or drainable and closed-end or disposable pouches. Some pouches have a filter that deodorizes and vents gas. This prevents the bag from becoming too stretched, coming off of the abdomen, or bursting. Ask your health care team about which type of colostomy pouch you will receive.

Caring for your skin. The skin surrounding the stoma is called peristomal skin. It is important to keep this area clean to avoid infection. The stoma will always look red and may bleed occasionally, which is normal. However, bleeding should not continue for long.

Living with a colostomy

A colostomy will bring some changes to your life. However, colostomy products are designed to be as convenient as possible.

Clothing. You should be able to wear the same type of clothes you wore before the colostomy. Pouches are designed to blend in and fit close to the body. They also have odor-barrier film that traps bad odor. The odor only releases when the colostomy pouch is being emptied.

Activities. You should be able to perform the activities of your daily life. People with colostomies go to work, play sports, and engage in sexual activity. Reasonable activity will not hurt you or your stoma.

Emotional support. Some people may feel depressed or embarrassed because of the colostomy. Consider finding a support group of people with colostomies. These relationships may help answer your questions and provide emotional support. Also consider counseling if you are struggling to cope with changes to your body.

Related Resources

Life with an Ostomy Bag: 3 Tips for Thriving

Colorectal Cancer Treatment and You: How to Eat Well

What is Cancer Surgery?

Blocked Intestine or Gastrointestinal Obstruction

Side Effects of Surgery

More Information

MedlinePlus: Colostomy