5 Deadly Digestive Problems

On the long list of unpleasant ways to die, it's hard to imagine anything topping "exploding colon." We'll take the stomach flu, heartburn, death by paper cuts even! Just please, please, spare us these fates.

1. Farting to Death

Sounds like a third-grade punch line, but maybe it's so funny because it's true. The average person expels about a half liter of gas per day. Put bluntly, that's somewhere between 13 and 17 daily farts. And although any 11-year-old with a matchbook and curiosity knows that gas passed is flammable (since it contains primarily hydrogen and methane), it's not dangerous for the excessively gassy to work around open flames.

Once in a while, though, someone will blow up from gas. The problem usually occurs during colonic surgery, when heat (or spark) comes into contact with flammable intestinal gases after inadequate "bowel evacuation." The resulting explosion is sometimes fatal.

Anyone who's ever suffered from colon surgery can tell you exactly what "bowel evacuation" entails - you drink a laxative the day before surgery and find yourself in the bathroom with enough time to read Anna Karenina. Unpleasant, sure, but better than blowing up on the operating table.

2. Pica

Pica, an eating disorder in which sufferers feel compelled to eat nonfood items, is usually seen in children. At least 10% of kids enjoy eating dirt or paste or plaster, but adults suffering from pica often develop unusual tastes.

Strangely, the same such cravings pop up so often they have their own names. Pagophagia is the compulsive eating of ice; coprophagia describes eating (often animal) feces; coniophagia involves - get this - the pathological consumption of dust from Venetian blinds.

And pica can be fatal. Too much plaster might lead to fatal lead poisoning, for instance, and consuming clay can lead to a potentially deadly intestinal blockage. (Image: Baobao, an 18-year-old Mongolian girl eating dirt)

3. Roundworms

About 25% of the world's population is infected with roundworms (that's Ascaris lumbricoides to the Latin scholars), which is even more disconcerting when you consider that one generally contracts roundworms by swallowing egg-ridden human feces. Once infected, the eggs hatch in the stomach and intestines, then migrate throughout the body.

Although completely disgusting, roundworms are only occasionally deadly - they can cause edema in the lungs; and the female worms, which can grow 18 inches long, sometimes perforate the intestines, leading to peritonitis.

But the most terrifying wormy complication involves anesthesia. Because worms find anesthesia irritating, they sometimes migrate up the trachea and nasal passages or down the intestines during surgery. It's been reported, for instance, that one pregnant woman had several of the nematodes worm out of her nose and mouth while she was giving birth.

4. Celiac Sprue

Dieters seeking low-carb lifestyle might do well to seek out celiac sprue, an intestinal ailment that amounts to an allergy to the protein gluten - found in such foods as wheat, barley, and rye.

When celiac sufferers ingest the dreaded stuff, the immune system responds by attacking the small intestine, which leads to a sort of intestinal baldness. Villi, hairlike protruberances that line the small intestine, absorb nutrients into the body, but when people with celiac eat gluten, the villi get flattened or otherwise damaged, making proper nourishment impossible.

If left undiagnosed, celiac can lead to massive malnutrition, wasting, and even death. But people with celiac can lead perfectly healthy lives provided they forswear gluten. Which means no beer. Which is, frankly, unacceptable.

5. Megacolon

A blessedly uncommon but life-threatening disorder, megacolon is characterized by the one-two punch of a massively inflated colon (one), and the accompanying abdominal distension (two). Although generally a complication of bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, megacolon occasionally develops from severe - and we mean severe - constipation.

One such example is on display at Philadelphia's Mütter Museum, which collects all manner of medical oddities (from John Wilkes Booth's thorax to a tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland's jaw). The crown jewel of the Mütter Museum's collection is a five-foot-long megacolon. Bearing a distinct resemblance to Jabba the Hutt, the monstrosity was removed from a man who, unable to move his bowels, died with 40 pounds of excrement in his gut. (Image: Colonic Association, warning: gruesome!)

From mental_floss' book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, published in Neatorama with permission.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!


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