Ask anyone and they’re likely to tell you that irrigation has something to do with agriculture. Very few might know that irrigation is also practiced in medicine.

There are many kinds of medical irrigation, which are all meant to benefit the human body. Here, we shall define this practice and explore its purposes.

What is medical irrigation?

Medical irrigation or lavage is the washing of wounds or body cavities using a stream of fluids. The stream should be gentle and steady, and needs enough pressure to reach its target area without forcing the fluid beyond the part that needs it. Depending on the purpose of the irrigation being performed, the return flow of the fluid may be collected or discarded. The main reason for irrigating the body is to flush out certain particles, and it can be conducted as part of personal hygiene practices, medical diagnosis, surgery, and the treatment of several illnesses.

Hygiene

Regularly irrigating different body cavities is important for personal hygiene. Some applications include irrigating the nose, mouth, ears, colon, and vagina. While all of these can be performed even without professional help, the safety levels for hygienic irrigation at home may vary depending on each body part.

Irrigating the nose, mouth and ears are generally safe to do by yourself. Nasal irrigation, in particular, is a widely-practiced hygienic irrigation, and some people even perform this as a religious practice. Meanwhile, doing colonic and vaginal cleansing on your own can be more risky. Risks of colonic irrigation include dehydration, infection, depletion of probiotics, and even kidney failure. Vaginal irrigation is even discouraged, because the female reproductive organ naturally maintains a healthy pH balance and good bacteria that irrigation could damage.

Diagnosis

Medical irrigation can also be used to diagnose certain diseases. Some prominent examples of diagnostic irrigation are bronchoalveolar, peritoneal and ductal lavage.

Bronchoalveolar lavage is usually performed to diagnose lung diseases, such as infections in patients with immunodeficiency, pneumonia, lung scarring, and some types of lung cancer. Peritoneal lavage can be used to determine if there is bleeding in the stomach, which can be caused by abdominal injuries.  Lastly, ductal lavage may aid in detecting breast cancer.

Surgery

Surgical team working on someone

Regularly irrigating surgical wounds and incisions eliminates or reduces infection, and promotes healing. It removes particles such as surface bacteria, damaged tissue, wound exudate, dressing residue and other foreign objects that can infect the wounds and stunt the healing process. Irrigating the wound upon initial assessment also allows doctors and nurses to assess the wound more accurately.

Irrigating wounds usually involves using syringes and catheters. But to reach deeper spaces, professionals might require irrigation aids, like a Frazier suction tube, a polyethylene irrigation tube or a scalp vein infusion set.

Treatment

Medical irrigation can be used to treat a lot of conditions. Arthroscopic lavage, for example, cleanses spaces in the joints and could help reverse damage from early arthritis. Since the 19th century, gastric irrigation has also been used to eliminate poisons from the stomach. Antiseptic lavage, which washes hollow organs with antifungal or antiseptic solutions, is typically used to treat inflammation around wisdom teeth as well. You can also use irrigation to treat eye emergencies at home.

Medical irrigation is best done by experts. If you wish to irrigate your body on your own, it might be better to get advice from a health professional first, so you can do it safely and efficiently.

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