Swallowed (or Inhaled) Foreign Object

Written by Autumn Rivers and Winnie Yu | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Happens When You Swallow a Foreign Object?

Anyone can swallow a foreign object. However, infants and toddlers are more likely to do so than adults because of their natural curiosity and tendency to put things into their mouths.

In many cases, the swallowed object will be processed by the digestive tract and exit your body naturally. In other cases, though, the object may get stuck or cause injuries on the way down. If this happens, you will need to see a healthcare provider for treatment—surgery may be needed.

Why Are Children At Greater Risk?

Toddlers and infants often explore items by putting them in their mouth. For this reason, most patients who swallow a foreign object are under the age of three.

A child’s risk of swallowing something potentially dangerous increases when he or she is left with little to no supervision. The risk also increases when the following types of objects are left within reach of small children:

  • coins
  • small batteries
  • buttons
  • marbles
  • rocks
  • nails
  • screws
  • pins
  • small magnets

Anything that can fit inside a toddler’s mouth may eventually end up there if no one is watching the child carefully. You should always childproof your child’s play area by keeping these items out of reach.

How Do I Know If A Foreign Object Has Been Swallowed?

Usually, the symptoms of a swallowed foreign object are hard to miss. They often appear immediately, since the item is blocking the airway. The most common symptoms include:

  • choking
  • difficulty breathing
  • coughing
  • wheezing

If the object was swallowed easily and did not get caught in the throat, there will not be any immediate symptoms. The object is already in the digestive tract. It will either pass naturally or symptoms will show up later, if the body has trouble passing the item. Possible symptoms that occur when an item is stuck in the esophagus or bowel are:

  • vomiting
  • drooling
  • gagging
  • chest or throat pain
  • refusal to eat
  • abdominal pain
  • fever

An item that is stuck for a long time in the body with no treatment can cause infection, such as recurrent aspiration pneumonia. This may result in chest pain, a phlegm-producing cough, and wheezing. Sometimes, there will be a fever as well.

It’s important that you always consult a doctor if you or someone you know has swallowed a foreign object, even if you believe it can pass naturally. If you believe the person has swallowed a magnetic object – it is a medical emergency and the person needs immediate medical attention.

How Do You Diagnose Someone Who Has Swallowed A Foreign Body?

When you suspect someone has swallowed a foreign object, you should bring him or her to the doctor to find out for sure. The doctor may perform an X-ray to locate the item.

If the patient cannot breathe easily, the doctor may use a bronchoscopy to take a closer look at the airways. Doctors also take other symptoms into account when making a diagnosis. You may be asked to provide a list of signs that led you to suspect a foreign object had been swallowed.

How Do Treat Someone Who Swallowed A Foreign Body?

Your treatment will depend on the condition you are in when you see your doctor.

Emergency Treatment

If you can barely breathe due to a blocked airway, emergency treatment is usually needed. The foreign object might be removed from the airway using back blows, the Heimlich maneuver, or CPR.

Home Care

If you are not choking on the foreign body, and seem to have swallowed it completely, the doctor may decide to wait and see if your body digests the item normally. You may be told to watch for symptoms, such as vomiting, fever, or signs of pain. You may also be advised to check your stool to make sure the object has left the body.

Surgeries

If the foreign body is causing pain or even damage to the bowels or esophagus, the doctor will likely treat the issue right away. This may call for surgery or an endoscopy to remove the object without perforating the bowels or esophagus. An endoscopy uses a small tube with a camera and tiny surgical instruments. It is inserted through your mouth and guided by your doctor to remove the foreign object.

What Is To Be Expected in the Long Term?

Infants, toddlers, and even older patients often swallow foreign objects. In most cases, they are processed naturally by the digestive system and come out in the stool within a few days, with no damage done to the patient.

However, if you leave the foreign object in your body despite having pain and a fever, you could get an infection or damage your organs. Also, if your airway is blocked and you do not seek immediate treatment, you could stop breathing and lose consciousness.

How Do I Prevent Swallowing A Foreign Object?

You can prevent this issue by keeping small objects out of the reach of toddlers and infants. You should also avoid putting small foreign objects inside your own mouth—especially items that can slip down your throat and block your airway. Remember, anyone can accidentally swallow a foreign object and take care.

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