Studies on the ‘gut origin of sepsis’ have suggested that stressful insults, such as surgery, can affect intestinal permeability, leading to bacterial translocation. Symbiotics have been reported to be able to improve gut permeability and modulate the immunologic system, thereby decreasing postoperative complications. Therefore we aimed to evaluate the postoperative use of symbiotics in head and neck cancer surgical patients for intestinal function and permeability, as well as the postoperative outcomes. Patients were double-blind randomised into the symbiotic (n 18) or the control group (n 18). Samples were administered twice a day by nasoenteric tube, starting on the 1st postoperative day until the 5th to 7th day, and comprised 109 colony-forming units/ml each of Lactobacillus paracasei, L. rhamnosus, L. acidophilus, and Bifidobacterium lactis plus 6 g of fructo-oligosaccharides, or a placebo (6 g of maltodextrin). Intestinal function (day of first evacuation, total stool episodes, stool consistency, gastrointestinal tract symptoms and gut permeability by diamine oxidase (DAO) enzyme) and postoperative complications (infectious and non-infectious) were assessed. Results of comparison of the pre- and postoperative periods showed that the groups were similar for all outcome variables. In all, twelve patients had complications in the symbiotic group v. nine in the control group (P>0·05), and the preoperative-postoperative DAO activity ranged from 28·5 (sd 15·4) to 32·7 (sd 11·0) ng/ml in the symbiotic group and 35·2 (sd 17·7) to 34·1 (sd 12·0) ng/ml in the control group (P>0·05). In conclusion, postoperative symbiotics did not impact on intestinal function and postoperative outcomes of head and neck surgical patients.