Definition

What is a swallowed object?

Anyone can swallow a foreign object. 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.

How common is a swallowed object?

This health condition is common. It can affect patients at any age. 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. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of a swallowed object?

The common symptoms of a swallowed object are:

  • Choking
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing

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:

  • Vomiting
  • Drooling
  • Gagging
  • Chest or throat pain
  • Refusal to eat
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever

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.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

When any nonfood item is swallowed, call a doctor. A description of the item should be given.

  • If no symptoms are present and the doctor is comfortable with the situation of the patient, a routine visit to the office may suffice.
  • If the person has any symptoms, or the object swallowed is concerning to the physician, the doctor will probably refer the patient to the emergency department.

If any symptoms continue and won’t go away after swallowing an object or large piece of food, go to the local emergency department. If the patient has a similar object to the one swallowed, bring it along to help the doctor determine what type of object may be causing the blockage.

If your or your child has any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Swallowing a magnetic object is a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if your child has swallowed a magnetic object.

Causes

What causes a swallowed object?

  • Infants and toddlers’ curious and oral nature draws them to put objects into the mouth. Children in this age group also are unable to adequately chew common foods such as peanuts and hot dogs.
  • Older children and adults may eat inedible items to seek attention or as a result of a psychiatric condition.
  • A medical condition may cause the esophagus to narrow, which causes food to become stuck in the esophagus.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for a swallowed object?

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.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is a swallowed object diagnosed?

The doctor will take a complete history and will specifically want to know what was swallowed, when it was swallowed, and any symptoms the patient has. A physical examination will focus on the mouth, throat, and lungs. The doctor may perform one or more of the following tests:

  • X-rays of the neck, chest, and abdomen may be performed to help locate any objects that will show up in this format, such as coins, batteries, metal toys, and bones.
  • Enhanced X-rays with barium may be used to help locate stuck objects not seen on regular X-rays.
  • The doctor may make a direct inspection of the area above the voice box with a special fiber optic light or indirect inspection with a dental mirror. These procedures require a cooperative patient.
  • Direct visualization with a fiber optic scope (endoscopy) may be needed to see objects in the esophagus. This is procedure is usually performed in a short procedure unit or in the operating room.

How is a swallowed object treated?

If the object swallowed causes choking, basic first aid is essential. If someone is choking and can make noise or speak, do not attempt the abdominal thrusts. Give the person a chance to clear the object. Once it is apparent that the airway is clear, there is little that can be done at home. Reassurance will help an anxious child or adult.

Swallowed object treatment

  • The physician may conclude that the object swallowed only caused minor trauma to the throat or esophagus and ask the patient to eat or drink something. If this can be done without difficulty or pain, he or she may be discharged with instructions including warning signs of any complications.
  • If an object is seen in the back of the throat on visual inspection, the doctor may attempt to remove it. A local anesthetic can be sprayed to make removal more comfortable. The physician will simply grab the object with forceps and remove it.
  • If the object is seen around the area of the voice box, immediate removal is required. This procedure is rarely done in the emergency department. Commonly, an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) removes the object in the short procedure unit or in the operating room.
  • Objects, including food, stuck in the esophagus must be removed. A gastroenterologist perform this using a fiber optic scope. No operation is needed. Occasionally, a foreign body in the upper esophagus can be removed by placing a catheter below the object. A balloon is then inflated, and the object is lifted out of the mouth.
  • For objects, especially food, stuck in the esophagus, medicine therapy may be tried. Medications such as nitroglycerine given under the tongue and glucagon given by IV can relax the esophagus and allow passage of the food to the stomach. An IV catheter is required for this. The success rate is poor with this procedure.
  • Swallowed objects that make it to the stomach usually pass in the stool without difficulty. Special consideration must be given to objects such as button batteries and sharp objects such as pins and bones. These usually pass without consequence, but occasionally they get stuck somewhere in the digestive tract.

Swallowed object surgery

Items stuck for a longer period of time lead to erosion of the esophagus. These usually make the patient very ill. Once erosion occurs, surgery is needed to remove the item and to repair any damage and prevent further erosion and infection.

Swallowed object follow-up

Follow up with a doctor or a specialist is recommended. Some objects retained inside the body need to be monitored with periodic X-rays to be sure they come out. A full evaluation of the esophagus is necessary after removal of an object from that area. This ensures that the anatomy of the esophagus is normal. Generally, a routine follow-up is all that is needed. Complications from swallowed objects are, the exception not the rule.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage a swallowed object?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with a swallowed object:

  • Keep small objects, including coins, toy parts, and button batteries, out of the reach of small children.
  • Cut food into the appropriate size for both adults and children.
  • If adults are having progressive difficulty swallowing solids, a liquid or puree diet will help with symptoms until medical attention can be obtained.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: October 30, 2017 | Last Modified: October 30, 2017

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