An Overview of Swallowed Foreign Objects

It's not uncommon to accidentally swallow a foreign object (i.e., something other than food) at some point. In some cases, a foreign object can pass through the body without causing any problems. However, if something gets lodged in your esophagus or contains dangerous materials (such as certain types of batteries), it can cause a dangerous blockage or tear.

Here's what to do if you or someone else swallows a foreign object, including symptoms to watch for and when to seek emergency care.

A baby sitting on the floor chewing on a toy
Nazar Abbas Photography / Getty Images 

Overview

The mouth is the first stop in the body's gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which also includes the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and the rectum. When you swallow anything—food, drink, or a foreign (non-food) object—it travels through the GI tract, or gut.

When a foreign object is swallowed, it can get stuck in the esophagus, a small, soft tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach. The esophagus has thin, very flexible walls that can easily catch and bind hard objects that are trying to pass. The walls of the esophagus are so flexible that when it is empty, it collapses almost flat, like a fire hose with no water in it.

If a foreign body makes it past your esophagus, it has a pretty good chance of making it all the way through the GI tract.

Symptoms

The only way to know for sure that someone you know has swallowed a foreign object is to see them do it. But even if you didn't see them swallow something, there are definite signs and symptoms that should make you pay attention, especially if you suspect something was swallowed that shouldn't have been.

Signs include:

  • Coughing or gagging
  • Trouble speaking
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Vomiting or drooling
  • Stomach pain

The esophagus and airway (trachea) are located side by side in the neck. Foreign objects that get stuck at the top of the esophagus can also enter the trachea. If the object is large enough, it can actually push on the trachea from inside the esophagus and interrupt air flow to the lungs.

In some cases, foreign objects can cause serious obstruction of the GI tract or even cut off airflow.

Any time you suspect that something was swallowed and it can be felt (by the person who swallowed it) in the throat or deep in the chest, it's important to seek medical care immediately.

Causes in Children

Young children explore the world by using their senses, including taste. One study estimates that 20% of children between the ages of one to three have swallowed a non-food item. Children under the age of five were responsible for 75% of all reported cases of foreign body ingestion between 1995 and 2015.

In 2016, U.S. poison control centers logged more than 65,000 calls about children swallowing non-edible objects. The most common items swallowed by kids are coins, toys, jewelry, and batteries.


Button batteries, like the ones used in watches or other electronics, can pose serious risks when swallowed. This risk can vary by the type of battery. For instance, sodium hydroxide batteries can cause chemical burns in the esophagus, while lithium batteries can generate electric currents that can damage the tissue.

Burns from batteries can cause perforations (holes) in the esophagus and also lead to scar tissue and long-term complications.

When it comes to button batteries, size matters. The worst outcomes overwhelmingly (94%) came from batteries that were at least 20mm in diameter. The best cure is prevention when it comes to button batteries, so take extra special care to keep them away from children, especially toddlers. If you suspect that a button battery was swallowed, seek emergency care right away.

Sharp objects, like glass or metal, can injure the thin walls of the esophagus and cause bleeding or an infection in the mediastinum (the cavity in the middle of the chest between the lungs). Even if sharp objects make it through the esophagus, they can cause damage in other areas of the GI tract.

Magnets are also problematic, especially if the magnet is large or if more than one was swallowed. In addition to potentially causing a blockage, magnets pose a unique risk because they can attract each other (or other pieces of metal) and pinch off the walls of the GI tract.

Causes in Adults

Children are not the only ones who can swallow non-food items. An object can be swallowed by mistake (for instance, if a carpenter is holding nails between their lips or a dressmaker is doing the same with a button). People with swallowing disorders, strictures, a neurological impairment such as dementia, or who are intoxicated can also ingest inedible objects.

In adults, the most commonly swallowed foreign objects are bones from food (like fish or chicken) and dentures.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you or someone you know has swallowed a foreign object, the first step is to seek medical care by calling your doctor or visiting the emergency room. Emergency treatment may be needed, particularly if a sharp object, magnet, or battery has been ingested.

Your doctor will perform a medical evaluation that includes a physical exam as well as imaging tests like X-rays or CT scans. This will help them confirm that an object has been swallowed, determine how far the object has traveled in the GI tract, and whether it is causing a blockage. These tests can also help your doctor better understand the size and shape of the object, which helps them decide next steps.

Most of the time, adults can be observed to see if the foreign body will pass on its own (and in 80% to 90% of cases, it will). However, some cases will require medical intervention.

Your doctor might also perform a procedure called an esophagoscopy, where they use an endoscope to look for the object into the esophagus and stomach. Endoscopy allows them to see the object and remove it if necessary.

In less than 1% of cases, surgery may be needed to remove a foreign object from the GI tract.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long will it take a swallowed foreign object to pass through the body?

The speed at which a foreign body will pass through the GI tract depends on how big it is. Shorter, smaller objects move more quickly. Though most will pass spontaneously within a week, some can take up to a month.

What should you expect after you swallow a foreign object?

If you swallow a non-food item, you may experience a number of symptoms, depending on what the object is and its size. You may cough or gag, or have difficulty swallowing or talking. You could also feel the object in your throat, or even feel nothing at all (if the object is small).

Some patients may experience stomach pain or vomiting after swallowing a non-food object.

What steps should you take if you accidentally swallow a foreign object?

The first step is to contact your healthcare provider. They will provide guidance to help you determine what to do next. Do not make yourself vomit as it could make the situation worse.

Depending on what was swallowed, your doctor may advise you of symptoms to watch for while you wait for the object to pass, or they may recommend a trip to the office or the emergency room.

A Word From Verywell

It can be frightening to realize you or your child has swallowed a foreign object, but try not to panic. In most cases, the object will pass through the digestive system. If you or your child are experiencing breathing problems or other noticeable signs, or have swallowed a small battery, however, get emergency help immediately.

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8 Sources
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