Swallowing Things They Shouldn’t - Esophageal Foreign Bodies

How many times have you said to your toddler, “Spit that out!”? Babies and toddlers often swallow things they shouldn’t, otherwise known as foreign bodies. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons a child is seen in the emergency room, and usually happens between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. 

Pennies are often the culprit – toddlers tend to be attracted to the shiny surfaces and bright color. Other items commonly swallowed include marbles, Legos, Barbie doll parts, watch batteries and magnets. Watch batteries and magnets, in particular, can be dangerous. Batteries can leak acid and damage the inner lining of the esophagus or the stomach, if ingested. Magnets can create holes within the intestine. 

Symptoms your infant or toddler has swallowed a foreign body include vomiting and refusing to take a bottle or drink. 

Children may or may not be irritable; it just depends on the object swallowed and the child’s temperament. Usually the diagnosis can be made with a simple x-ray. Treatment depends on what’s been swallowed and where it’s lodged within the body:

  • Any object in the esophagus must be removed. This can usually be done with a camera or other instruments and rarely requires surgery. 
  • Coins that make their way into the stomach can be safely observed.
  • Magnets and watch batteries usually require removal or very close follow-up with multiple x-rays to make sure they are passing through the intestine without difficulty.

 Below are a few tips to prevent your child from swallowing these items:

  • Spend some time on the carpet looking for items your child may find interesting, which include pretty much anything.
  • Frequent vacuuming helps keep the floor clear.
  • Have a container where loose change can be kept so that it doesn’t fall on the floor.
  • Make sure when you change watch batteries, the old batteries are discarded and new ones are kept out of the reach of the children.
  • Avoid buying toys where magnets are a component until they are older.

If you suspect your child may have eaten something inappropriate, a trip to the emergency room for an x-ray is the first step. If a foreign body is found, a specialist will be called to help.