Toddlers are natural explorers. They’re always putting things in their mouths, and while parents try their best to be vigilant, accidents can and do happen. According to a recent report published in the journal Pediatrics, the rate of foreign-body ingestions among children under the age of 6 in the United States has risen by about 92% between 1995 and 2015. This includes ingesting coins, toys, and other foreign objects like bugs and pebbles.
“It’s extremely common for children to swallow foreign objects like coins, marbles, toys, or sand,” says Dr. Patricia Kettlehake, a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor of Sharp Coronado Hospital. “Young children are attracted to shiny objects. They explore their world by touching everything and putting everything in their mouth as potential food.”
According to the Pediatrics study, coins are the most common items ingested by kids ages 1 to 3. In 2015, coins accounted for more than 58% of ingestion, and of all the patients hospitalized in the U.S. during the two decades studied, nearly 80% had ingested coins.
“Eighty to 90 percent of the time, coins pass unobstructed,” says Dr. Kettlehake. “They usually pass in less than four to five days, often within 48 hours.”
Accidentally swallowing a small object
But what about plastic toys? Well, a group of health professionals from the medical blog Don’t Forget the Bubbles actually took on the challenge and engaged in a quick experiment to find out. Six doctors from their team each swallowed a Lego head and then searched through their own, er, waste to determine how long it took to excrete the plastic.
Each doctor logged their bowel movements using a "stool hardness and transit" score (we’ll let you figure out the acronym for that one). A person with a higher score had looser and more frequent bowel movements, so the piece of plastic may have moved through the person’s body more quickly.
Each doctor was responsible for analyzing his poo and trying to retrieve the swallowed object. After they retrieved the plastic toy, they calculated for a "found and retrieved time" score (again, figure out the acronym for this), which averaged out at 1.71 days.
The researchers hope that their experiment may bring comfort to worried parents. “A toy object quickly passes through adult subjects with no complications,” according to the study, which was published in The Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health.
However, the team was also quick to remind parents that their experiment was “a bit of fun in the run-up to Christmas” and does not apply to children who swallow little plastic toys. The sample size is also too small to draw broad conclusions for all adults who accidentally swallow Lego heads.
What to do when your child swallows foreign objects
One of the first things you need to check is that your child is not choking. Trouble breathing, swallowing, or speaking, is a cause for alarm. Try this first aid technique and go to the emergency room (ER) immediately.
According to Sharp Healthcare, if the object is stuck in the esophagus, your child might exhibit the following symptoms: increased salivation, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, neck pain, chest pain, or coughing. If any of this comes up, bring your child to the ER immediately.
If the object is stuck in the intestine, it may cause tearing in the intestinal wall. Check your child’s stool — if it’s dark or bloody, or if your child experiences stomach pain, vomiting, and diminished bowel sounds, bring your child to the ER immediately.
What to do if your child swallows a button battery
According to the Pediatrics study, battery ingestions in the U.S. have increased 150-fold during the study period. Button batteries can be fatal if ingested, and it is found to be the most common type of battery that young children swallow accidentally.
Dr. Danielle Orsagh-Yentis, the lead author of the study and a pediatric gastroenterology motility fellow at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, USA, attributes the rise to the fact that button batteries are found in a “multitude of household items including thermometers, remote controls, and toys."
When a button battery gets lodged in the body, it might cause significant tissue injury within two hours, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and can lead to perforation, hemorrhage, and even death.
If you suspect your child has ingested a button battery within 12 hours, the AAP suggests giving your child who is over 12 months old two teaspoons of honey. You can give up to 6 doses of honey about 10 minutes apart. Researchers have found that it can help protect the tissue near the battery and reduce injuries. Most importantly, bring your child immediately to an emergency room as soon as she swallows a button battery.
If parents think their child has swallowed any dangerous object, Dr. Orsagh-Yentis suggests bringing a sample of the object or its packaging and showing it to the doctor. Taking a picture of the type of object ingested can also be “immeasurably helpful” to the doctor, she says.