Has Your Child Swallowed Something? Here is What You Need to Know

It happens to many – a parent’s worst nightmare. You turn away for one second and turn back to find that your child has swallowed something. Now, the panic sets in.

Key takeaways:

In many cases, the foreign object will pass, while in other cases the swallowed object can be life-threatening. If you are a parent or caregiver who wants to know what to do if a child swallows an object, this article is for you.

Foreign object ingestion

When an object moves from the mouth into the esophagus, it is known as “foreign body ingestion.”

According to the Pediatric Surgical Associates, as many as 70,000 foreign body ingestions occur in children every year in the US, most often in toddlers and preschool-aged children. At this age, children are very curious and explore different objects around them, putting them in their mouths, then swallowing by accident.

In the majority of cases, a coin is swallowed and gets stuck in the esophagus. Another commonly ingested object is batteries, small toys, magnets, buttons, and pieces of jewelry.

In many cases, the parents see what object is swollen, but in other cases, they just notice the child starts to suddenly drool or vomit, refuse to eat, or complain of pain in the chest.

Foreign object aspiration

When the foreign object goes down the airways, it is known as “foreign body aspiration.”

Children under the age of 4 are more likely to have an object go down the airways. In many cases, the object is a piece of food like popcorn or nuts, while in other cases, it is a small piece of jewelry or beads.

Older children are more likely to experience this problem with pen tops, screws, guitar picks, or other items that they may have held in their mouth and accidentally inhale when they move or cough.

The child may get noisy breathing right away. If that object is the food like nuts, it may cause symptoms a few days later as the food increases in size.

What should you do if you think your child swallowed an object?

Children may have no symptoms, even when an object is stuck in the windpipe.

Some objects may be more dangerous than others.

If your child swallowed a plastic bead or another small object that is not sharp, you may not need to see a doctor right away.

If your child swallowed a coin or another round, small, metal object, it is a good idea to see a doctor as soon as possible.

If your child swallowed something sharp or a battery, you need to take your child to the pediatric emergency department immediately. Multiple magnets should also be addressed immediately because they connect and can cause blockages.

If you are not sure what your child swallowed, seek medical advice, just to be safe. It is best to do so within 24 hours of the incident.

Above all, the parents or caregivers should not panic. They should try to remember as many details as possible about the incident to tell the doctor.

Button-style batteries – special considerations

Button-style batteries are particularly dangerous because they can cause severe burns in the esophagus in just 2 hours. Emergency visits related to battery ingestion have been increasing over time in the US, as these button batteries are now widely available and are used in toys, watches, calculators, remote control devices, and other products.

In case of battery ingestion, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends obtaining an x-ray right away. If the battery moves beyond the esophagus, the child can be sent home and wait for the battery to pass. It can take several days and even months to eliminate the battery. If the child develops a fever, pain in the abdomen, vomiting, or has blood in the stool, notify the doctor and the National Button Battery Ingestion Hotline (202-625-3333) right away.

In a 2018 news release, Dr. Ian N. Jacobs, M.D., director of the Center for Pediatric Airway Disorders at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia suggests giving honey to a child who ingested a button battery, as honey can help neutralize the pH. In the event of a child swallowing a battery, parents with young children should check with the pediatrician if honey can be used and discuss safety issues. Honey should not be given to children under the age of 1, if the child is allergic to honey, if the esophagus is perforated, or if the child has sepsis (a medical emergency caused by the body's response to an infection).

Red-flag symptoms

Symptoms that require immediate medical attention after a child swallows a foreign object include:

  • Vomiting.
  • Drooling.
  • Gagging.
  • Refusing to eat.
  • Coughing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Noisy breathing.
  • Achy pain in the chest or stomach.

What will the doctor do?

First, the doctor will ask the caregivers several questions to determine what the child swallowed, including:

  • Was the child alone when it happened?
  • What were the symptoms right after they swallowed the object?
  • Did the child turn blue, cough, vomit, or have noisy breathing?

An x-ray can determine if the object is stuck and where. There are special tools that can be used to visualize the windpipe to see if the object is there.

The doctor may try to remove the object or push it into the stomach, as most things from the stomach are eliminated in the feces.

Pediatric surgeons remove swollen objects using a scope in the operating room, while the child is sedated. The procedure lasts about 10 minutes and the child can go home soon after.

How to prevent foreign object swallowing

Keep all small objects, particularly batteries and sharp objects, out of your child’s reach. Battery compartments must be secure, and spare batteries should be kept away from children at all times.

Do not allow your child to play with toys that have small parts that may come apart and get swallowed.

Make sure older children keep their small toys away from younger children.

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