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The Dangers of Fleet Enemas

The dangers of oral sodium phosphate preparations are fairly well known in the medical community. In 2006 the FDA issued it’s first warning that patients taking oral sodium phosphate preparations are at risk for potential for acute kidney injury. Two years later, over-the-counter preparations of these drugs were voluntarily withdrawn by the manufacturers.  Those agents still available by prescription were given black box warnings mainly due to acute phosphate nephropathy that can result in renal failure, especially in older adults. Despite all this talk of oral preparations, little was mentioned about a sodium phosphate preparation that is still available over-the-counter – the Fleet enema.

Why Oral Sodium Phosphate Preparations Are Dangerous 

Before we go into the risks of Fleet enemas, lets spend just a couple sentences on why oral sodium phosphate preparations carry significant risks. First, oral sodium phosphate preparations can cause significant fluid shifts within the colon resulting in intravascular volume depletion. Second, these preparations can cause electrolyte disturbances including significant hyperphosphatemia, hypocalcemia, and hypokalemia.  A significant clinically important rise in serum phosphate can even be seen in elderly patients with normal renal function. (J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2004;19(1):68). Lastly, phosphate nephropathy may occur due to the transient and potentially severe increase in serum phosphate combined with volume depletion from the fluid shifts.

Why the Same Holds True for Sodium Phosphate Enemas (aka Fleet enemas)

A fleet enema works as a hyper-osmotic laxative that draws in water into the gastrointestinal tract.  In healthy younger adults, this action shouldn't pose a problem as the laxative action from a fleet enema occurs relatively quickly, so there is little absorption of phosphate.

However, what if your patient isn't a health young adult?  What if they are older, frailer, and taking multiple medications, including some that may slow their bowels down like opioids or those with anticholinergics properties?  A recent publication by Yaacov Ori and colleagues titled "Fatalities and Severe Metabolic Disorders Associated With the Use of Sodium Phosphate Enemas" gives some evidence that great caution is warranted when prescribing Fleet enemas in this population.

Yaacov Ori and colleauges conducted a retrospective case series of 11 elderly patients (mean age of 80) at the Rabin Medical Center in Israel. Ten of these patients received Fleet enemas for relief of constipation and one received it as a proctoscopy prep. Three of these patients received 500-800 mL of sodium phosphate and 8 patients received approximately 250mL (for a comparison, a typical over-the-counter Fleet enema comes in either a 118 and 197 ml dose). Baseline renal function was normal (eGFR by MDRD of 60mL/min) in 4 patients with a range of 25 to 57 mL/min in the other seven.

What they found was that renal function deteriorated in all 11 patients. Hypotension and extreme hyperphosphatemia was prominent in 8 of these patients. The serum calcium level was dangerously low in 8 patients. Five patients died. An autopsy on one patient revealed calcium phosphate calcifications within the renal tubular lumens.

The Take Home Point - Just Don't Use It

There are some medications that despite years of use should be clearly abandoned in older individuals or those with advanced illness (i.e. the GeriPal population). Colace is an excellent example of a medication that offers little benefit but also little harm in younger, healthier populations. However, in patients that are frail, hospitalized, or approaching the end of life, the risks begin to significantly outweigh any possible benefit.

Fleet enemas should also be relegated to this list of medications that should generally be avoided unless your patient is a very robust older adult.  We should also teach others that if you do happen to order a Fleet enema for a hospitalized or nursing home patient, you should never give a second dose in succession if the first trial fails.   Lastly, we should educate patients and their caregivers that medications, like the pictured Fleet product with "70% more volume," should not be considered safe just because it can be found in the over-the-counter aisle.

by: Eric Widera (follow on twitter at @ewidera)


Anne Kinderman said…
Great point -- the question then becomes what we SHOULD use. What enema do people usually recommend? I've usually used tap water or mineral oil; maybe bisacodyl in bad cases. Looks like there's not great evidence for enemas in general:
Yaacov Ori said…
You can use an enema that contains sorbitol and glycerin. It comes in a squeezable 180 ml bottles. Its commercial name is "easy-go" in our country. Or just use water enema.
Dr Yaacov Ori
Anonymous said…
I care for my live-in 93 year old (robust, healthy) Grandmother. She has a severely impacted bowel that was missed by our GP (August 3rd) and now after repeated use of mineral oil and glycerine suppositories (to no effect) I was told to use Fleet Phospho-Soda. My Doctor said, "Just give her a tablespoon every few hours until you get results". I have her 1.5 tablespoons - no results and stopped doing it, because the Doctors orders contradicted the packaging safety info. Now I read the info on your forum! Ugh! She was manually relieved this morning, but has not done anything since. Is this Fleet stuff sitting in her system causing damage while we keep trying to get the mid-level impaction moved?

Another doctor (I sought a second opinion) prescribed Docusate. Haven't researched this one yet.....

My grandmother is a vibrant member of our family. I do not want to lose her over something as simple as this!

Any help, advice or encouragement is welcome!
MikeM said…
Another option for enemas is soapsuds enemas (we can order them on inpatients at my hospital).

For outpatients, you can suggest Microlax (sodium citrate with sorbitol and sodium lauryl sulfoacetate).

Sodium citrate enemas are quite safe but not available at most hospitals as they are more expensive than sodium phosphate.
Eldercare said…
You mention risk outweigh benefit of colace use. Can you elaborate on that. please
Anonymous said…
Those who have regular constipation may use Psyllium husk. It’s natural. Consult with doctor before use see possible side effects You can buy pure psyllium husk from many Indian or Bengali grocery stores. Ask for “Esobgul” or Isopgul. It’s being used in Indian Subcontinent as a natural remedy for constipation. Effective usage: for small meal (eg. a burger with bun): just before meal, mix one tea spoon of Psyllium Husk with one cup of lukewarm water, steer and drink right away. Increase husk if you need to make your bowel softer. Make sure to continue with every meal. Do not try to swallow husk dry, you may get suffocated. If you get tired of it: make drink (mix with a glass of normal water, wait for about an hour. Add any flavor you like and sweetener, or milk. Steer well).
JoeyB said…
This is outdated...fleet no longer uses OSD and haven't for quite some time.

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