Every year in the U.S., more than 80,000 kids swallow things that aren't food. About 20 of them will end up in front of Children's Hospital Colorado's Robert Kramer, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist.
"Our center removes about 200 foreign objects every year," says Dr. Kramer, one of the nation's foremost experts on foreign body ingestion. "We also field a lot of phone calls about foreign bodies that we can manage with guidance and observation."
The vast majority of those kids, he says, will be fine. The swallowed object will drop into their stomach, wind through their intestine and (ahem) "pass" a few days later without incident.
But some cases are more serious, and some can be deadly. Dr. Kramer has devoted his pediatric gastroenterology career to studying these cases and how to prevent them. Here's his advice on what objects to look out for — and what to do if your child swallows one.
The delayed danger of button battery ingestion
Even when they're seemingly spent, batteries can still carry a small electrical charge — and when a button battery is stuck in the esophagus, that charge essentially causes a chemical burn, which can erode a hole in the tissue.
"If the area of the burn is close to a large vessel like the aorta, that can and has been a fatal event," says Dr. Kramer. "Even when we remove the battery itself, there's a structural weakness in the esophageal wall, so a fatal bleeding event can occur up to three weeks after."
Kids often get button batteries out of household objects parents might not think to suspect; light-up fidget spinners are frequent offenders, says Dr. Kramer. And while many toy makers have recently built safeguards into their toys to make it more difficult for kids to get to the batteries inside, that’s not necessarily the case for many common household items not expressly intended for kids, but which kids may have access to. Think remote controls, key fobs, even greeting cards that play music.
More concerning is that button battery ingestions are seemingly on the rise. Dr. Kramer’s team saw double the number of cases in 2020 that it saw in 2019, and 2021’s numbers are set to continue that trend. Dr. Kramer suspects that’s because, given the pandemic, kids and parents are spending more time at home. So it pays to be extra cautious.
“Just be aware,” says Dr. Kramer. “How many devices with batteries do I have, and where are they?”
What to do if you suspect your child has swallowed a button battery:
If you know your child has swallowed a button battery, go immediately to the emergency department or call 911. If you're not sure, call the National Battery Ingestion Hotline.
In the meantime, give your child honey: 10 milliliters (about 2 teaspoons) every 10 minutes.
“The thick nature of it coats the battery and esophagus and disperses some of the electrical charge,” says Dr. Kramer. “It’s been shown to decrease injury to that tissue, which buys some more time until you can get emergency care.”
National Battery Ingestion Hotline: 800-498-8666
How swallowed detergent pods and household cleaners cause burns
Like batteries, detergents and household cleaners can cause chemical burns to the esophagus — and the scarring can cause sometimes permanent narrowing. "I have patients with caustic esophageal injuries who I see sometimes once a month, to physically dilate their esophagus," Dr. Kramer says, "sometimes for years."
To prevent injury, keep cleaning products locked up or out of reach of children, especially detergent pods, whose bright swirling colors make them look like candy to toddlers.
What to do if you think your child has ingested detergent pods or cleaners
Call Poison Control, which can help you figure out if it's something to worry about — and send emergency help if it is. "Any parent of a toddler should have the number for poison control available at all times," says Dr. Kramer.
Poison Control: 800-222-1222
When swallowing a coin becomes a problem
A big share of the foreign object ingestions Dr. Kramer sees are coins. "Most that make it to the stomach are not emergencies, and if it leaves the stomach it's going to pass through without a problem," says Dr. Kramer. "But if it's stuck in the esophagus, because of the veins and arteries nearby and the propensity for scarring, we want to remove it within 24 hours."
What to do if your child swallows a coin
If your child seems to be having any trouble breathing, call 911 right away. If not, urgent care can X-ray to see if the object has made it to the stomach — although if it's stuck in the esophagus, you'll need to go to an emergency department to have it taken out. So if there's a reason to believe it might be stuck (a kiddo drooling, vomiting or refusing food or drink, for example), it's probably best to head straight to emergency.
When to worry about swallowed magnets
Like coins, magnets are not inherently dangerous to swallow. If a kid swallows a single magnet, and it's not stuck, there's probably nothing to worry about. The larger concern is with so-called "rare earth magnets" like Buckyballs, the kind of brightly colored, visually appealing adult fiddle toy you might keep on your desk. "These are literally and figuratively magnets for children," says Dr. Kramer. "They will find them, and they will ingest them." When kids do swallow multiple magnets, they often get stuck in separate folds of the intestine, pulling toward each other so strongly they can bore holes in the intestine wall.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission found these magnets so dangerous to children that they were recalled nationally in 2012, until a 2016 Federal Court case overturned the ban. "Almost immediately we started seeing cases again," Dr. Kramer says. If you have young children, it's probably best not to keep these in the house at all.
What to do if you think your child has swallowed one or more rare earth magnets
Head to the emergency department right away.
If you need to go to the emergency room
"If you know what your child has ingested, and you have another of the same object, bring it to the emergency department with you," Dr. Kramer says. So for example, if your child swallowed a LEGO piece, bring a similar one along. Seeing the object — and knowing if it will show up on an X-ray — will help care providers plan a course of action.
Locate a Children’s Colorado emergency location