Foreign Bodies (Objects Not Meant to Be Eaten)

There are four areas where the esophagus narrows. Many foreign bodies can get stuck in these narrowings of the esophagus, often without any initial symptoms or discomfort. If left in the esophagus, the object may shift and/or move, block the airway or impair breathing, and/or damage the surrounding tissue. Batteries, coins and sharp objects are examples of foreign bodies that are the most frequently ingested and present a special concern.

In addition to the possibility of blockage and mechanical injury, all foreign bodies have the potential to "slip down the wrong pipe" and enter the lungs. This occurrence, called aspiration, may result in choking, coughing and difficulty breathing. Large pieces of food, hard candy and balloons present a special aspiration hazard for young children. If someone is choking, call your emergency medical services number (911 in many areas).

Call the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) anytime your child swallows a foreign body. In most cases, an X-ray is needed to determine the location of the object. You will need to examine your child's stool to make sure the object has passed.

  • Batteries

    Disk or button batteries are a choking hazard. Disk batteries that are swallowed can cause severe burns to the esophagus and stomach if they become stuck and begin to leak their caustic contents. Other small batteries — such as AA or AAA — are used in a multitude of children’s toys. These are also hazardous if eaten. Learn more about the dangers of button batteries.

  • Coins

    These are large enough to block breathing if they become dislodged from their position, and if not removed, may result in the perforation (breaking through) of the esophagus.

  • Expand-in-water toys

    There have been cases in which the ingestion of expand-in-water toys, which may grow up to 60 to 100 times their original size, have caused a child's bowels to be completed blocked.

  • Lead

    Lead poisoning is another threat to young children in this country. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and at very high levels, seizures, coma and even death.

    Childhood lead poisoning affects approximately one million children in this country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in the body, it often occurs with no obvious symptoms and can go unrecognized for a long period of time.

    The major source of lead exposure in the United States is lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in older buildings. Although lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978, approximately 24 million housing units in this country have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. The older a house is, the more likely it is to contain lead-based paint and a higher concentration of lead in the paint.

    Young children are at greatest risk for lead poisoning because their growing bodies absorb more lead and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. In addition, young children tend to put their hands in their mouths frequently. Paint chips and lead dust can be easily ingested by toddlers and children.

    While the damage caused by lead poisoning can be irreversible, a simple blood test can determine if your child is at risk. The key to preventing lead poisoning is to stop children from coming into contact with lead, and treating children who have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

    If you think your home might be contaminated, there is a simple test kit available for about $8 at Home Depot and other home improvement stores. In addition, state or local health departments can test the paint and dust from your home.

    For more information, talk to your pediatrician or call the National Lead Information Clearinghouse toll-free at 800-424-LEAD (800-424-5323). You may also contact Children's Hospital's Lead Clinic at 215-590-3004.

    If you are in Philadelphia, you may also call the City of Philadelphia's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) at 215-685-2797.

  • Magnets

    If more than one magnet is swallowed, there is a risk of the magnets attracting to each other in the bowels. This could damage the child's tissue and organs and cause a possible bowel blockage.

  • Sharp objects

    These include pins, broken toys, broken glass, etc., These objects can easily become stuck in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract because of their sharp edges and result in injury.

Reviewed by The Poison Control Center on October 01, 2013