There is not a parent alive who has not either had a child swallow something they shouldn’t have, or worried about what they should do when it happens. It can be terrifying when you see your child swallow a foreign object, but it may be even more worrying to know that as much as 40 percent of incidences of foreign object ingestion in children is not witnessed, and about half of all cases don’t show any symptoms, so you aren’t aware of what has happened.
Children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years are the most likely to swallow foreign objects, and although there are hundreds of thousands of cases reported every year in patients under 20 years, less than one percent are serious. However, when your child’s well being is at stake, even a 99 percent certainty isn’t enough.
When can you “wait and see,” and when should you panic? Here’s what you need to know.
Potentially Toxic Substances
If your child has swallowed a potentially toxic substance, including household cleaners, household chemicals or unknown substances, you shouldn’t waste any time. Don’t wait for signs of poisoning, which might include loss of consciousness, foaming at the mouth, drooling, vomiting and other symptoms. Get immediate emergency care, and if you can, take the rest of the substance or the container with you, so that doctors can identify it and treat your child faster and more effectively.
Small, Inert Objects
In many cases, small, inert objects like coins, stones or pieces of crayon will pass through your child’s system without incident. There are certain small objects, however, which can cause significant trouble:
- Batteries, which contain dangerous chemicals, are a major cause for concern.
- Magnets can also cause trouble, including potential perforation of the stomach or intestines when more than one is swallowed, or when they are swallowed along with metal items.
- Any sharp or blunt objects. Sometimes, children swallow pins, shards of glass or plastic or small, square or blunt objects which could cause damage internally or become lodged in the esophagus.
As a rule of thumb, if the object is small, smooth, solid and not magnetic, you can probably call to confirm that it’s okay to wait for it to pass, rather than rush to an emergency room.
Larger Objects, Swallowed Whole
Larger objects swallowed whole can cause trouble by becoming lodged in the throat, stomach or intestines, even if they went down easily enough. If your child has swallowed something and you are concerned it may get struck, or if it has sharp edges that could rip or tear the tissues, you need to have x-rays done to find out where it is, and determine if intervention is necessary.
Sometimes, children swallow an object that doesn’t go down smoothly at all. Choking is a big risk for children, who have smaller airways, and who may not chew food properly when eating. If your child has swallowed something and appears to be choking, you need to take immediate action, such as:
Having someone call 911. If you are alone, perform first aid first or place your phone on speaker so you can continue first aid while connecting to emergency services.
Assess whether the child is coughing. If the child is coughing, monitor the situation, but don’t interfere. People who are choking do not cough.
If the child is not coughing, start the five-and-five approach.
- Give five pats on the back.
- Follow the pats with five Heimlich abdominal thrusts.
Repeat pats and thrusts until help arrives, or the object is dislodged.
Don’t try to stick a finger down your child’s throat to dislodge a trapped object, as this can simply push the object further down, making it harder to remove.
Signs of Foreign Object Ingestion
You won’t always be able to tell when your child has swallowed a foreign object. In some cases, you will only know that something is wrong when your child begins to show symptoms. If you see any of these signs, emergency medical care is required:
- Blood in saliva
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sort throat when swallowing
- Refusing food and failure to thrive
- Gagging and vomiting
- Complains of strange sensations in throat
Older children who can talk may be able to tell you if they swallowed something when you question them. Reassure them that you only want to help, and that they will not be in trouble if they have swallowed something.
In all cases, if you’re not sure if your child has swallowed an object, or whether it’s potentially dangerous, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Rather overreact and be wrong, than under-react and end up with a child who is seriously ill. If you’re in any doubt, take your child to your nearest emergency room as soon as possible.