Bile duct stents that stay in too long may cause complications. Experts differ on how long a bile duct stent should stay in, but most suggest removing or replacing it every 3 to 6 months. This can depend on your age, overall health, and if the stent is plastic or metal.

If you’ve had surgery to treat a condition in your bile ducts, pancreas, or gallbladder, a doctor may have inserted a bile duct or biliary stent. A biliary stent is a small tube that helps to keep a narrow bile duct open.

Doctors often use bile duct stents during endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) to treat blockages that narrow your bile or pancreatic ducts. You may have an ERCP because of conditions like pancreatitis, gallstones, or cancer. Doctors also use bile duct stents after gallbladder surgery to stop leaks.

A doctor will usually need to remove the stent after a few months, depending on the type of stent. This prevents complications with the stent moving out of place, becoming blocked, or causing infection.

Biliary stent placement is a standard treatment for a narrow or blocked bile duct. In many cases, the treatment goal is to open the duct until it can remain open without support.

But there are potential complications of this procedure. The stent may move out of place or migrate further into the bile or pancreatic ducts. It may also become blocked due to a buildup of bile or a tumor.

Stents are made of plastic or metal. Plastic stents are usually cheaper but may be more likely to experience complications after 4 months.

If left inside your body too long, plastic stents can cause bacteria buildup or release enzymes that cause calcium buildup. Calcium buildup can turn into stones at the site of the stent, causing symptoms, such as fever, jaundice, and pain.

In a 2017 study of 374 people with a plastic stent, 19% had delayed removal, meaning their stents were in for longer than 3 months. Among that group, 18% needed hospitalization due to blockage.

It’s unclear how long a stent can safely remain in your bile duct.

According to 2018 research, experts recommend replacing plastic stents every 3 to 6 months. In some treatment plans, doctors exchange or replace plastic stents every 3 to 4 months for up to a year. But this could be challenging for older people with comorbidities.

If a stent needs to be in place longer than 3 to 4 months, doctors will typically opt for a metal stent. They may insert a covered self-expanding metal stent and leave it in your body for up to 1 year.

Some experts recommend follow-up after stent placement and possible removal after 4 to 6 weeks.

But a 2020 study found much lower complication rates than earlier studies, even after 18 months without stent removal.

If your stent becomes blocked or moves out of place, a doctor should remove it. Even if your stent is working well and causing no problems, your doctor may schedule a date to remove it.

Indications that a bile duct stent may need to be removed

You may experience symptoms related to a bile duct stent moving or becoming infected. Symptoms to look out for and discuss with a doctor include:

  • abdominal pain
  • jaundice
  • fever
  • back pain
  • blood in your stool (rare)
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If the stent has remained in place and there are no complications, such as stones, a doctor may remove it by ERCP in the same way they inserted it.

Some stent models have a loop on the end to make it easier to remove. For these models, a surgeon uses forceps to grab the loop and take out the stent.

If the stent has moved, a doctor may monitor it with X-ray or CT imaging until the stent passes in your stool.

In very rare cases, the stent may pierce through your bowel. This is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention. A doctor will perform a laparoscopy instead of an endoscopy. This procedure involves a scope that allows the surgical team to examine the abdominal area while still being minimally invasive.

If a doctor replaced a blocked or out-of-place stent with a new stent, you might experience improvement in symptoms. Gastrointestinal symptoms of a blocked bile duct, such as fatigue and loss of appetite, normally improve 1 or 2 days after stent placement.

After stent removal, you can take some time to recover from the procedure. If you had an ERCP, you might need a few hours to wake up from the sedative. Your doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics for you to take at home.

If you have had a laparoscopy, you may be able to go home the same day after waking up from anesthesia. You may have to rest for a few days before returning to your regular routine.

Biliary stents open narrow or blocked bile ducts. In some cases, they may permanently increase the size of the duct so a stent is no longer necessary.

But these stents come with a risk of complications, such as migration, blockage, or infection. To prevent complications, experts recommend replacing plastic stents every few months, even if they’re working properly. Some metal stents can typically stay longer.

If there are no complications, stent removal is simple via the same process as stent placement. If there are severe complications, the removal may require a more invasive procedure.