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Swallowed objects

swallow; swallowed; object; coin; child; baby; first; aid; injury; coin; battery; esophagus; foreign; oesophagus ;

Babies and young children learn about their world by putting things in their mouths. Something that has been swallowed is often called a 'foreign object'.

Some small objects will pass through a child's body without causing harm, but some may get stuck, while others can cause damage to the wall of the gut, or pierce the gut.

Contents

Babies and young children learn about their world by putting things in their mouths. So they may swallow things such as coins, marbles, beads, small batteries, buttons, tablets, small parts of toys, and even sharp things such as broken pieces of glass, needles and open safety pins. Tablets, berries and objects such as snail bait may be poisonous (see the topic 'Poisoning').

Something that has been swallowed is often called a 'foreign object'.

Some small objects will pass through a child's body without causing harm, but some may get stuck, while others can cause damage to the wall of the gut, or pierce the gut.

It is important for you to make your home as safe as possible as soon as your baby starts to move around (most babies can move around by rolling or pulling themselves along several weeks or more before they can crawl).

Is this an emergency?

If you see your child swallowing something, and you cannot stop it happening, or your child may have swallowed something, look for these signs that there could be a problem requiring emergency treatment:

  • trouble breathing, crying or talking
  • coughing that does not clear the airways (the trachea or bronchi)
  • wheezing or noisy breathing
  • trouble swallowing
  • drooling or bringing up saliva
  • loss of consciousness.

If these happen, it may mean that your child's airway is blocked. Call for emergency help: 000 in Australia.

Also, see the topic 'Choking - preventing choking on food' for more information.

Objects that can be dangerous to swallow

  • Small coin-shaped batteries can cause harm if they do not pass through the body quickly, as the chemicals inside can leak out and burn the surrounding tissue, or they can cause a small electric current which can also do harm.
  • Objects that are small enough to swallow, but larger than about 18mm across may get stuck on the way down in small children.
    • All Australian coins, including the 5 cent and 2 dollar coins are larger than 18 mm, so they may cause problems.
  • Objects that are pointed (eg. open safety pins, toothpicks, stiff wire, fish and chicken bones) can pierce the gut, so if you think your child has swallowed one the child needs to be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.

Is it stuck?

The narrowest part of the gut is the oesophagus (the tube leading down from the throat to the stomach). If an object passes down into the stomach, it will usually pass through the rest of the gut within a few days (usually less than 4 to 5 days, often within 2 days).

Signs that the object may be stuck include:

  • chest or tummy pain
  • not being able, or willing, to swallow food or drink,
  • dribbling or drooling
  • vomiting,
  • becoming unwell, with a fever.

Note: A stuck object may not cause any symptoms at first.

What you can do

  • If there are any symptoms
    • do not give the child anything to eat or drink,
    • do not try to make the child vomit,
    • do have the child seen by a doctor as soon as possible, or take the child to a hospital emergency department.
  • If the object was likely to be dangerous (eg. battery, pointed object, tablets, poison, lead sinker, coin), take the child to a doctor as soon as possible.
  • If the object was small, smooth, and not likely to be poisonous (eg. small marble, small coin or button), and there are no symptoms, it is probably reasonable to wait for a while and watch the child, but take the child to a doctor if there are any concerns.
    • Watch the child's poo to see if the object is passed.
    • If it has not passed in several days, and you are sure that the child did swallow something, take the child to your doctor for advice.
    • Do not give the child laxatives or extra fibre.

Treatment

  • Many objects will show up on X-ray, so this will probably be the first thing that is done.
  • If an object is stuck in the oesophagus, it will usually be removed using an endoscope (a flexible tube which can be passed into the child's oesophagus to grab the object). The child will be given an anaesthetic for this. Other surgery is usually not necessary.
  • If the object is in, or below, the stomach, your doctor may recommend waiting to see what happens naturally. This depends on what has been swallowed. If the child has swallowed a small battery for example, and it is still in the stomach, the doctor may recommend removing it using an endoscope. If it is lower down, waiting to see what happens may be the best management.

Swallowing other things

  • Some children have a habit of eating things that are not food. This is called 'Pica' (see the topic 'Eating things which are not food').
  • Children may get lead poisoning from chewing on objects that have been painted with a lead based paint. See the topic 'Lead poisoning'.

Resources

Australia

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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