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Swallowed or Inhaled Objects

Swallowed or Inhaled Objects

Topic Overview

When you swallow food, liquid, or an object, what is swallowed passes from your mouth through your throat and esophagus into your stomach. A swallowed object will usually pass through the rest of your digestive tract without problems and show up in your stool in a few days. If food or a nonfood item gets stuck along the way, a problem may develop that will require a visit to a doctor.

Sometimes when you try to swallow, the swallowed substance "goes down the wrong way" and gets inhaled into your windpipe or lungs (aspirated). This occurs most often in children who are younger than 3 years and in adults who are older than age 50. When you do inhale a substance, coughing is a normal reaction of the body to clear the throat and windpipe. The cough is helpful and may clear up the problem. Inhaling a substance into your lungs can cause a lung inflammation and infection ( aspiration pneumonia ).

The situation may be more serious when:

  • Signs of choking (complete airway obstruction) are present. When the windpipe is blocked, air cannot move in and out of the lungs and the person cannot talk, cry, breathe, or cough. A blocked windpipe is a life-threatening emergency.
  • Signs of a partially blocked windpipe are present. When the windpipe is partially blocked, some air can still move in and out of the lungs. The person may gag, cough, or have trouble breathing. Coughing will often pop out the food or object and relieve the symptoms. The choking rescue procedure is not recommended when the windpipe is partially blocked.
  • An object is stuck in the esophagus.
  • A poisonous object has been swallowed, such as a wild mushroom, a plant, or a chemical. For more information, see the topic Poisoning
  • A potentially poisonous object, such as a condom filled with illegal drugs, has been swallowed.
  • A button disc battery, magnet, or object with lead has been swallowed.
  • A swallowed object doesn't show up in the stool within 7 days.

About 80% to 90% of swallowed objects, like chewing gum, are harmless and pass through the gastrointestinal tract without problems. But some types of objects can cause more serious problems when they are swallowed. These include:

  • Sharp objects, such as open safety pins, bones, toothpicks, needles, razor blades, or broken thermometers.
  • Long objects.
  • Large objects that may get stuck in the digestive tract and require removal.

Your doctor may recommend tests such as an X-ray , endoscopy , or barium swallow to help find the object if it doesn't come out in the stool, or if an inhaled object is not coughed out. See an X-ray of a swallowed object . A special metal detector (not the same kind that people use in their yards) might be used to locate a metallic object, such as a coin, inside the body. Your doctor may then recommend a procedure to remove the object or may simply encourage you to continue to check the stool for the passage of the object.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

The following home treatment may help relieve discomfort after you swallow or inhale an object.

  • Do not cause (induce) vomiting unless your doctor or the poison control center specifically instructs you to do so. Vomiting could cause you to inhale (aspirate) the object into your windpipe or lungs.
  • Drink liquids. If swallowing liquids is easy, try eating soft bread or a banana. If eating soft bread or a banana is easy, try adding other foods. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may help move the swallowed object through the digestive tract.
    • Continue to drink more liquids until the object has passed in your stool. Extra fluid will help the object move through the digestive tract. The object should pass within 7 days.
    • Watch your stools to see if the object has passed. Do not use a laxative unless your doctor tells you to.

Note:

Do not use syrup of ipecac. It is no longer used to treat poisonings. If you have syrup of ipecac in your home, call your pharmacist for instructions on how to dispose of it and throw away the container. Do not store anything else in the container.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • New symptoms develop, such as:
    • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or coughing.
    • Pain in the throat, chest, or belly.
    • Vomiting, especially vomit that contains blood.
    • Blood in the stool, such as red, black, or tarry stools.
  • The swallowed object does not pass in the stool in 7 days.
  • Your symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

To prevent children younger than 4 years from swallowing or inhaling objects:

  • Carefully supervise young children.
  • Keep small items out of your child's reach.
  • Teach children not to put anything other than food in their mouths.
  • Do not give children foods that may cause choking. These include hard, smooth, or chewy foods that must be chewed with a grinding motion or foods that are round and can easily get stuck in the throat. These types of food are more likely to be swallowed improperly or inhaled.
  • Have children, especially toddlers, sit down to eat their food.
  • Cut food into small pea-sized pieces.
  • Do not feed your child while he or she is crying or breathing rapidly.
  • Discourage talking, laughing, or playing while your child has food or beverages in his or her mouth.
  • Do not give young children small objects that may cause choking, such as marbles or jacks.
  • Look for age guidelines when selecting toys for children.
    • Do not let your child play with a toy if he or she is younger than the recommended age for the toy.
    • The safest toys for small children are at least 1.25 in. (3 cm) around or 2.25 in. (6 cm) in length.

For more information about how to prevent accidental poisoning, see the topic Poisoning. Keep the poison control center number for your area readily available.

Practice the following suggestions when eating, and teach them to your children. Children may copy your behavior.

  • Cut your food into small pieces.
  • Eat small bites slowly and carefully, and chew your food thoroughly.
  • Do not laugh or talk with food in your mouth.
  • Do not eat or drink while you are involved in another activity, such as driving.
  • Do not hold objects such as pins, nails, and toothpicks in your mouth and lips.
  • Avoid excessive drinking of alcohol while eating.

To be prepared for a choking emergency, take an approved first aid course such as those that are sponsored by the American Heart Association or the American Red Cross.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What was swallowed or inhaled? What was the size of the object?
  • When did it happen?
  • What are your main symptoms? How have the symptoms changed since swallowing or inhaling the object?
  • Did your symptoms come on gradually or suddenly?
  • Have you had a change in your bowel habits?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David Messenger, MD
Last Revised August 8, 2012

Last Revised: August 8, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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