Preoperative fasting for adults to prevent perioperative complications

General anaesthetic reduces reflexes that stop regurgitated gastric juices reaching the lungs. As this can be dangerous, people are often advised to have nothing to eat or drink from the midnight before surgery. However, the review of trials found that drinking clear fluids up to a few hours before surgery did not increase the risk of regurgitation during or after surgery. Some people are considered more likely to regurgitate under anaesthetic, including those who are pregnant, elderly, obese or have stomach disorders. More research is needed to determine whether these people can also safely drink up to a few hours before surgery.

Authors' conclusions: 

There was no evidence to suggest a shortened fluid fast results in an increased risk of aspiration, regurgitation or related morbidity compared with the standard 'nil by mouth from midnight' fasting policy. Permitting patients to drink water preoperatively resulted in significantly lower gastric volumes. Clinicians should be encouraged to appraise this evidence for themselves and when necessary adjust any remaining standard fasting policies (nil-by-mouth from midnight) for patients that are not considered 'at-risk' during anaesthesia.

Read the full abstract...

Fasting before general anaesthesia aims to reduce the volume and acidity of stomach contents during surgery, thus reducing the risk of regurgitation/aspiration. Recent guidelines have recommended a shift in fasting policy from the standard 'nil by mouth from midnight' approach to more relaxed policies which permit a period of restricted fluid intake up to a few hours before surgery. The evidence underpinning these guidelines however, was scattered across a range of journals, in a variety of languages, used a variety of outcome measures and methodologies to evaluate fasting regimens that differed in duration and the type and volume of intake permitted during a restricted fasting period. Practice has been slow to change.


To systematically review the effect of different preoperative fasting regimens (duration, type and volume of permitted intake) on perioperative complications and patient wellbeing (including aspiration, regurgitation and related morbidity, thirst, hunger, pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety) in different adult populations.

Search strategy: 

Electronic databases, conference proceedings and reference lists from relevant articles were searched for studies of preoperative fasting in August 2003 and experts in the area were consulted.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials which compared the effect on postoperative complications of different preoperative fasting regimens on adults were included.

Data collection and analysis: 

Details of the eligible studies were independently extracted by two reviewers and where relevant information was unavailable from the text attempts were made to contact the authors.

Main results: 

Thirty eight randomised controlled comparisons (made within 22 trials) were identified. Most were based on 'healthy' adult participants who were not considered to be at increased risk of regurgitation or aspiration during anaesthesia. Few trials reported the incidence of aspiration/regurgitation or related morbidity but relied on indirect measures of patient safety i.e. intra-operative gastric volume and pH. There was no evidence that the volume or pH of participants' gastric contents differed significantly depending on whether the groups were permitted a shortened preoperative fluid fast or continued a standard fast. Fluids evaluated included water, coffee, fruit juice, clear fluids and other drinks (e.g. isotonic drink, carbohydrate drink). Participants given a drink of water preoperatively were found to have a significantly lower volume of gastric contents than the groups that followed a standard fasting regimen. This difference was modest and clinically insignificant. There was no indication that the volume of fluid permitted during the preoperative period (i.e. low or high) resulted in a difference in outcomes from those participants that followed a standard fast. Few trials specifically investigated the preoperative fasting regimen for patient populations considered to be at increased risk during anaesthesia of regurgitation/aspiration and related morbidity.