What happens when you swallow a foreign object?

Anyone can swallow a foreign object. However, infants and toddlers have a natural curiosity and tendency to put things in their mouths, which puts them at a higher risk than adults.

In many cases, the digestive tract will process the swallowed object and the object will exit the body naturally. In other cases, the object may get stuck or cause injuries on its way through the body. If this happens, you’ll need to see a doctor for treatment. Surgery may be necessary depending on the circumstances.

Toddlers and infants often explore and learn about items by putting them in their mouths. Most people who swallow a foreign object are under the age of 3.

A child’s risk of swallowing something potentially dangerous increases when they’re left with little or no supervision. The risk also increases when the following types of objects are within their reach:

  • 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. Always childproof a child’s play area by keeping these items out of reach.

Learn more: What causes airway obstruction? 8 possible conditions »

The symptoms of a swallowed foreign object are usually hard to miss. You’ll notice symptoms immediately if the object blocks the airway. The most common symptoms include:

If a child swallowed an object easily and it didn’t get caught in their throat, there may not be any immediate symptoms. The object is already in the digestive tract. It will 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 include:

An item 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, a fever accompanies these symptoms.

It’s important to consult a doctor if you or your child swallowed a foreign object — even if you believe it can pass naturally.

Swallowing a magnetic object is a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if you or someone you know has swallowed a magnetic object.

Seek medical treatment if you suspect your child has swallowed a foreign object.

A doctor may perform an X-ray to locate the item or a bronchoscopy to take a closer look at the airways if the person can’t breathe easily. A bronchoscopy is a procedure where a doctor uses a thin tube with a camera called a bronchoscope to look at the airways.

Doctors also take other symptoms into account when making a diagnosis. You may need to provide a list of signs that led you to suspect a foreign object was swallowed.

Treatment will depend on the person’s condition.

Emergency treatment

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

Read more: Heimlich maneuver »

Pointed objects could puncture the esophagus or bowels. Small batteries, such as a watch battery, can cause tissue damage. These items should be removed immediately. Seek medical help for any of these conditions.

Home care

If the person isn’t choking on the foreign object and seems to have swallowed it completely, a doctor may decide to wait and see if the body passes the item normally. You may need to watch for symptoms, such as vomiting, fever, or signs of pain. The doctor might also ask you to check the stool to make sure the object left the body.


Your doctor will likely treat the issue right away if the foreign object is causing pain or damage to the bowels or esophagus. This may call for surgery or an endoscopy to remove the object without puncturing the bowels or esophagus. An endoscopy uses a small tube with a camera and tiny surgical instruments. A doctor will insert it into the mouth and down the esophagus to remove the foreign object.

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

Infants, toddlers, and even adults can swallow foreign objects. In most cases, the digestive system will process the item naturally and the body will pass the item within seven days without causing damage.

However, a foreign object left in the body could cause an infection or damage organs. It’s best to check in with your doctor. If the object blocks an airway, seek immediate treatment.