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Inhaled substance or foreign object

7-minute read

If you or someone near you is having trouble breathing, call triple-zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Sometimes people accidentally breathe in (inhale) a foreign object or substance.
  • Foreign objects may cause choking or breathing difficulties.
  • Inhaling chemical fumes may cause breathing difficulties, irritate your eyes and skin and can also cause long-term damage to your body.
  • Seek urgent medical attention if you think you or your child may have inhaled a foreign object or is choking.
  • Learn first-aid and CPR so you can help if someone is choking or has inhaled chemical fumes.

What is an inhaled substance or object?

Sometimes people accidentally breathe in (inhale) something they shouldn’t. This might include liquids, powders, gases or solid items such as medicines or drugs, particularly:

  • small parts from toys
  • food or drink that has gone down the breathing pipe (trachea) instead of the food pipe (oesophagus)
  • smoke from fires
  • chemical and toxic fumes, including household gas (such as the gas from your kitchen stove), aerosols or glues
  • button batteries

Some people, especially young children, may swallow foreign objects. While inhaled objects get stuck in the trachea or respiratory tract, swallowed objects move through the oesophagus and digestive tract. Some objects, such as button batteries and magnets, can cause serious harm if swallowed. For more information, visit healthdirect’s article on swallowed objects.

What happens if a foreign object is inhaled?

If you accidentally inhale an object, you might choke. Choking is when a foreign object partially or completely blocks the throat or trachea (breathing pipe), preventing air from reaching the lungs.

Some signs that a person may be choking are:

  • clutching at the throat
  • coughing wheezing or gagging
  • difficulty breathing, speaking or swallowing
  • making a whistling sound, or no sounds at all
  • blue lips or face
  • loss of consciousness

For information about identifying and responding to choking, visit healthdirect’s article on choking.

If someone near you is having trouble breathing, call triple-zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Sometimes, it may not be obvious that someone has inhaled an object or fluid, especially if the object gets stuck further down in the respiratory tract. Subtle signs of an inhaled foreign object might include:

  • persistent wheezing (a whistling sound while breathing)
  • persistent cough
  • coughing up blood (haemoptysis)
  • fever

If you think that someone has inhaled an object, or you aren’t sure if an object was inhaled or swallowed, seek urgent medical care. You should go to the nearest emergency department if you have been advised to do so, or if you or your child, have:

  • trouble breathing
  • coughing that won’t stop
  • wheezing (or a whistling sound while breathing)

To find your nearest hospital emergency department or after-hours medical service, use the healthdirect Service Finder tool.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How can I prevent accidental inhalation of foreign objects in young children?

Young children are especially vulnerable to inhaling foreign objects. This is because they are naturally curious and explore their environment by putting things in their mouths. Children also have small airways, and their cough reflex may not yet be well-developed.

Here are some things you can do to reduce the risk of choking and inhaled foreign objects in young children:

  • Make sure children are sitting down quietly when eating or drinking.
  • Avoid giving hard or round foods, such as whole nuts or grapes, to children under 5 years of age.
  • Choose age-appropriate toys for your children. Keep toys with small parts for children over 3 years of age.
  • Keep plastic bags away from young children.
  • Keep small objects away from young children. These include items such as needles, safety pins, coins, magnets, batteries and buttons.
  • Learn infant and child first-aid.

What are the complications of inhaling fumes?

Fumes from chemicals or toxic substances can irritate your airways, skin and eyes, and inhaling a substance can make your nose and throat sore or swollen.

Some chemicals can also cause serious, long-term damage to your lungs and nervous system, especially if you inhale a large quantity, or are repeatedly exposed to fumes.

What should I do if I inhale chemical or toxic fumes?

If you have inhaled chemical or toxic fumes, you should get into fresh air straight away. Loosen tight clothing and open doors and windows wide.

If you are with someone who has inhaled toxic fumes, seek medical attention immediately. If they have collapsed, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and start resuscitation. Tell the operator what the poison was. If you’re not sure, you can call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26.

If the person vomits, turn their head to the side to prevent choking.

Do not try to rescue someone if there is a toxic gas involved, as you may also inhale the substance. Call triple zero (000) for help.

Some cleaning products can produce toxic gases when they’re mixed together. If this happens, get into fresh air. When it is safe to do so, dispose of the mixed cleaning products safely. Check for instructions on the product packaging about safe disposal.

Inhaling substances deliberately

Some people may deliberately inhale vapours from common household substances, such as glue, petrol and aerosol spray, to make them feel intoxicated (high) or to harm or injure themselves.

If you have done this, you should know you are not alone, and help is available.

Are you experiencing suicidal thoughts? Read this healthdirect article, or call Lifeline: 13 11 14

How can I prevent accidental inhalation of chemical fumes?

Here are some tips to help you and your family avoid accidental inhalation of chemical fumes:

  • Keep dangerous substances such as household chemicals in a safe place, away from children.
  • Don’t mix cleaning chemicals – some chemicals can create toxic gases when combined.
  • Read and follow all safety instructions printed on the label of cleaning products and household chemicals.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022

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