What is it?
Young children, and sometimes older children and adults, may swallow toys, coins, safety pins, buttons, bones, wood, glass, magnets, batteries or other foreign objects. These objects often pass all the way through the digestive tract in 24 to 48 hours and cause no harm.
But problems may arise when objects are stuck for a long time, are sharp, are magnetic or contain corrosive materials. Complications can include tears in the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth and stomach), movement of the object into the tissue of the esophagus, and infection. Small magnets can pose a special problem. If more than one is swallowed, they can stick together and erode through tissue.
Three areas of the esophagus are the most likely places for objects to lodge:
- At the level of the collarbones (clavicles) — the most common place
- At the center of the chest
- Just before the esophagus meets the stomach, near the bottom of the rib cage.
Objects also may get stuck in any part of the esophagus that has been injured previously.
If the object gets caught in the esophagus, it can cause:
- Inability to swallow or painful swallowing
- Chest pain or neck pain.
Objects also can become trapped in the intestine or can tear the intestinal walls. The result can be vomiting, abdominal pain, abnormal bowel sounds and dark stools that contain blood.
After your doctor examines your child and asks about his or her recent medical history, the doctor may order an X-ray to help show where the object is. Some things cannot be seen with an X-ray. If the X-ray does not show the object, but the symptoms and circumstances still suggest that an object is stuck in the esophagus, the child may need a computerized tomography (CT) scan, or other radiologic tests.
Most objects that do not cause symptoms will pass through the digestive tract in one or two days without causing harm.
Keep all small objects such as coins, pins, magnets, small toy pieces and batteries away from young children, especially those younger than age 3.
If your child has swallowed a foreign object, call your doctor for advice, and:
- Do not try to make the child vomit.
- Do not panic.
- Do not assume that surgery is necessary. Most objects pass through the digestive tract without complications. Surgery for removing foreign objects is not common.
- Do not forcefully remove the object. This can cause further injury.
Sometimes, the object must be removed either endoscopically or surgically. This is done under anesthesia.
When to call a professional
If your child swallows a battery, magnet or an object larger than a quarter, contact your doctor immediately or bring them to a local emergency room, even if your child has no symptoms. The same is true if your child has swallowed something sharp, such as a piece of glass or an open safety pin. Sharp objects sometimes can injure the esophagus, stomach or intestines.
If your child has swallowed a smooth object that is smaller than a quarter, and has no symptoms, contact your doctor to decide the best course of action. You may be able to wait and see if the object passes through the digestive tract on its own. If more than 24 to 48 hours pass and you do not see the object in the toilet or in your child's diaper, or if your child begins experiencing symptoms of a lodged object, contact your doctor.
In most cases the outlook is excellent; the object will pass on its own or can be removed without complications.
Complications from endoscopy or surgery can include bleeding, tears in the esophagus or intestine, infection or complications from the anesthesia. These complications are uncommon, and usually treatable.
National Library of Medicine (NLM)