What Does NPO Mean in Nursing? Explained.

If you are a nursing student or a healthcare professional, you may have encountered the term NPO. NPO is a medical abbreviation “nil per os,” a Latin phrase that translates to “nothing by mouth.” In nursing, NPO is a standard order given to patients who are not allowed to eat or drink anything orally for a specific period of time.

The NPO order is typically given before a medical procedure or surgery or if a patient is experiencing certain medical conditions that require them to fast. The purpose of NPO is to prevent complications during the procedure or surgery, such as aspiration, vomiting, or choking, which can be life-threatening. It also helps to ensure the patient’s stomach is empty, making the procedure or surgery safer and more effective.

Nurses need to understand the NPO order and its implications. They must ensure that the patient is aware of the order and its reason and is comfortable and well-hydrated during the fasting period. Nurses must also monitor the patient’s vital signs and symptoms to detect any signs of complications and report them to the healthcare provider. In this article, we will explore the meaning of NPO in nursing and its importance in patient care.

Definition of NPO

Full form of NPO

NPO stands for “nil per os,” a Latin term that means “nothing by mouth.” In nursing, this term is used to indicate that a patient should not consume any food or liquids for a specific period of time.

Explanation of “nothing by mouth”

The NPO order is typically given to patients about to undergo a medical procedure requiring anesthesia or sedation. Doing this reduces the risk of aspiration, which is when stomach contents are regurgitated and inhaled into the lungs, potentially causing severe complications. By withholding food and fluids for a specific period of time before the procedure, the patient’s stomach is empty, reducing the risk of aspiration.

Importance of NPO in nursing

NPO orders are critical in nursing, as they help to ensure patient safety during medical procedures. Nurses play a crucial role in implementing NPO orders, monitoring patients for signs of dehydration or other complications, and ensuring that NPO orders are lifted when appropriate. Failure to follow NPO orders can result in serious complications, including aspiration, which can be life-threatening.

Overall, NPO orders are an essential tool in nursing, helping to ensure patient safety during medical procedures. By understanding the whole meaning of NPO, nurses can play a critical role in implementing these orders and ensuring that patients receive the best possible care.

Reasons for NPO

Pre-operative procedures

One of the most common reasons for NPO in nursing is pre-operative procedures. Patients are usually asked to stop eating and drinking for a few hours before surgery. This happens because the anesthesia can make people feel sick and throw up, which is dangerous if there is food or liquid in their stomach. In addition, fasting helps to prevent the aspiration of stomach contents during the procedure.

Post-operative care

After surgery, patients may be kept NPO until they are fully awake and able to swallow without risk of aspiration. This ensures that the patient’s airway is protected and that they do not experience any complications related to anesthesia or surgery. In some cases, patients may be kept NPO for more extended periods if they experience complications or if their recovery is slower than expected.

Diagnostic tests

Some diagnostic tests require patients to be NPO for a certain period of time before the test. For example, patients may be asked to fast for several hours before a blood test or imaging study. This is to ensure that the test results are accurate and not affected by recent food or liquid intake.

Gastrointestinal issues

Patients with specific gastrointestinal issues may be placed on NPO status to allow their digestive system to rest and heal. This may be done in acute pancreatitis, bowel obstruction, or other conditions requiring the patient to avoid food and liquid for some time.

Medication administration

Some medications cannot be taken with food or liquid or must be taken on an empty stomach for optimal absorption. In these cases, patients may be asked to be NPO for a certain period of time before and after taking the medication.

Other Medical Conditions

Many other medical conditions may require a patient to be NPO for a while. For example, patients with uncontrolled diabetes may need to fast before specific medical procedures to prevent complications. Patients with certain heart conditions may also be asked to be NPO before surgery or other procedures to reduce the risk of complications.

Implications of NPO Orders


One of the most significant implications of NPO orders is dehydration. Patients not allowed to consume fluids for an extended period may experience dehydration, which can lead to various complications.

Dehydration may cause electrolyte imbalances, leading to muscle weakness, confusion, seizures, and coma. Patients who are NPO for an extended period may require intravenous fluids to maintain their hydration levels.


NPO patients for an extended period may also experience hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. This can occur for patients with diabetes or those taking medications that affect their blood sugar levels.

Hypoglycemia can cause sweating, shakiness, confusion, and even loss of consciousness. Nurses should closely monitor patients’ blood sugar levels and provide appropriate interventions.


NPO patients may also be at risk for aspiration or inhaling food or liquid into their lungs. Aspiration can cause pneumonia, which can be life-threatening, especially in older adults or those with compromised immune systems.

Nurses should monitor patients closely for signs of aspiration, such as coughing, choking, or difficulty breathing, and take appropriate measures to prevent it.

Nutritional deficiencies

Patients who are NPO for an extended period may also experience nutritional deficiencies. Without adequate nutrition, patients may become malnourished, leading to various complications.

Malnourished patients may experience muscle weakness, fatigue, and even organ failure. Nurses should closely monitor patients’ nutritional status and provide appropriate interventions, such as enteral or parenteral nutrition.

Increased risk of infection

Patients who are NPO for an extended period may also be at an increased risk of infection. Patients’ immune systems may become compromised without adequate nutrition and hydration, making them more susceptible to infections.

Nurses should take appropriate measures to prevent infections, such as maintaining good hygiene and monitoring patients’ vital signs closely.

NPO Orders and Nursing Care

Nursing Interventions to Promote Patient Comfort

When a patient is ordered to be NPO (nothing by mouth), it can be challenging to cope with hunger and thirst. As a nurse, it is essential to provide interventions to help alleviate these discomfort feelings.

You can offer the patient ice chips or small sips of water to moisten their mouth and keep them comfortable. Additionally, you can offer the patient distractions such as music or reading materials to help take their mind off of their hunger.

Patient Education on the Rationale for NPO Orders

Educating the patient on the reasons for the NPO order is crucial. Patients may need help understanding why they are not allowed to eat or drink, which can lead to frustration or confusion.

As a nurse, you can explain to the patient the rationale behind the order, such as preparing for a procedure or preventing aspiration. This education can help the patient feel more in control of their care and reduce anxiety.

Monitoring Vital Signs and Laboratory Results

When a patient is NPO, monitoring their vital signs and laboratory results closely is essential. This includes monitoring their blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation levels. Additionally, you should monitor their laboratory results, such as electrolyte levels, to ensure they are within normal ranges. If any abnormalities are detected, it is essential to notify the healthcare provider immediately.

Collaboration with Interdisciplinary Team

Collaboration with the interdisciplinary team is crucial when a patient is ordered to be NPO. This includes communicating with the healthcare provider, dietitian, and other healthcare team members to ensure that the patient’s needs are being met.

Additionally, it is essential to work with the patient’s family to ensure that they understand the rationale behind the NPO order and to provide support to the patient during this time.

Importance of Understanding NPO Orders

Implications for Patient Care and Safety

Understanding NPO orders is crucial for providing safe and effective patient care. NPO orders are given to patients who cannot consume food or liquid orally, and nurses need to follow these orders to prevent complications such as aspiration pneumonia, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances.

Failure to follow NPO orders can lead to severe harm or even death for the patient, so it is essential for nurses to understand the importance of these orders and to ensure that they are followed correctly.

Failure to follow NPO orders can also have legal and ethical implications. If a nurse fails to follow an NPO order and the patient suffers harm. As a result, the nurse could be held liable for malpractice.

Additionally, failing to follow NPO orders can be considered a violation of the patient’s rights and could lead to ethical concerns. Nurses must ensure they follow NPO orders correctly to protect themselves legally and uphold ethical standards.

Impact on Patient Outcomes

Following NPO orders can have a significant impact on patient outcomes. Patients unable to consume food or liquid orally may be at risk for malnutrition, dehydration, and other complications.

By following NPO orders, nurses can help prevent these complications and improve patient outcomes. Additionally, following NPO orders can help patients recover quickly and avoid prolonged hospital stays.

Role of Nurses in Ensuring Patient Comfort and Safety

As healthcare professionals, nurses are responsible for ensuring that patients are comfortable and safe. This includes following NPO orders to prevent complications and promote healing. Nurses can help ensure patient comfort by providing alternative forms of hydration and nutrition, such as intravenous fluids or tube feedings. By working closely with other healthcare team members, nurses can help ensure that patients receive the care they need to recover and return to optimal health.


In conclusion, NPO is a common abbreviation used in the nursing field for nil per os, meaning nothing by mouth. It is a medical order that restricts a patient from consuming any food or drinks orally for a specific period of time. NPO is typically ordered before a medical procedure, surgery or if a patient is experiencing digestive issues or vomiting.

Nurses play a critical role in ensuring patients comply with NPO orders, as failure can lead to severe complications such as aspiration pneumonia, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances. It is vital for nurses to educate patients and their families on the importance of following NPO orders and monitoring patients for any signs of complications closely.

Understanding the meaning of NPO is essential for nurses to provide safe and effective care to their patients. By following NPO orders and closely monitoring patients, nurses can help prevent complications and ensure patients receive the best possible care.

Photo of author

Anna Curran. RN, BSN, PHN

Anna Curran. RN-BC, BSN, PHN, CMSRN I am a Critical Care ER nurse. I have been in this field for over 30 years. I also began teaching BSN and LVN students and found that by writing additional study guides helped their knowledge base, especially when it was time to take the NCLEX examinations.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.