If you think you or your child has swallowed a button battery or magnet, immediately dial triple zero (000) for an ambulance or go to the nearest hospital emergency department. Don’t try to get your child to vomit or allow them to eat or drink while you’re waiting.
What is a swallowed object?
Children love to put things in their mouths — including poisonous substances and small non-toxic objects. See healthdirect’s article on poisoning if you need more information on that topic; this article focuses on objects.
If you think you or your child has swallowed a poison, call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26.
Swallowed objects can progress through the body without a problem and can be passed in stools (poo). The following objects usually cause no problems:
- small stones or pebbles
- pips or stones from fruit
- teeth (if they have been knocked out)
But some objects can be very dangerous if they are swallowed. These include:
- button batteries
- large objects more than 6cm long or wider than 2.5 cm
- a magnet, especially two or more magnets
- objects made of lead
Sometimes swallowed objects can also get stuck in the oesophagus (food pipe) and so they won’t pass through. Swallowed objects like button batteries can even burn through the lining of the food pipe, causing serious injury or death.
When should I call an ambulance or go to the emergency department?
Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance, or go to the nearest emergency department, if someone:
- is having trouble breathing
- has a cough that won’t stop
- is wheezing (or making a whistling sound while breathing)
- is drooling or bringing up saliva
- has lost consciousness
- has swallowed a button battery or magnet
- has swallowed a large object
Pointy objects — like toothpicks or broken chicken bones — very occasionally cause problems in the bowel a day or two after being swallowed. If you or your child has swallowed something sharp and pointy, you should speak to a doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
What should I do while waiting for the ambulance?
The person who swallowed the object should not eat or drink anything until they have spoken to a healthcare professional. This is in case they need to go to hospital, where the object may need removing — in which case they will need an empty stomach.
It is very important not to try to make someone vomit since this could cause choking or block the airway.
What are the warning signs/symptoms of a swallowed object?
A child often won’t have any symptoms when they have swallowed an object. But you might suspect they have swallowed something if they have trouble swallowing food, they are drooling, or they have a pain in the chest or neck.
If your child has damage to their digestive system, there might be blood in their saliva or they might have black poos.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our swallowed or inhaled substances Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
Why would a child swallow an object?
One of the ways babies and young children learn about the world is by putting things in their mouths. It’s important to be very careful to make their environment safe so they can’t put something dangerous in their mouth that could make them choke. Those at highest risk are aged 6 months to 4 years.
Some people may swallow objects deliberately to harm or injure themselves. If you have done this, you should know you are not alone and help is available. Please discuss this with a healthcare professional straight away.
Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance, or go to the nearest hospital emergency department, if you think you are in danger.
Find out more about self harm here.
How is a swallowed object diagnosed?
In hospital, a medical team will talk to you about what was swallowed. They may do an x-ray if they think the object will show up.
How is a swallowed object treated?
If there is no pain, no problem breathing and you or the child can eat or drink, you may be able to go home. You will have to go back to hospital if breathing problems, tummy pain, fever or vomiting occur, or if it’s not possible to eat or drink.
You should check any bowel movements for the object. It will usually appear within 4 to 6 days. If you have not found the object in your poo after 2 weeks, visit your doctor for further advice. If fruit pips or very tiny objects have been swallowed there should be no need to search your stools.
Some objects need to be removed in surgery.
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
How do you prevent children from swallowing objects?
You can keep young children safe from swallowing objects by:
- sitting down while eating
- encouraging the child to chew properly
- cutting up foods and avoiding hard foods like nuts until age 5
- keeping small objects out of reach
- making sure toys don’t have small parts that can break off
- keeping button batteries out of reach and making sure all remotes, toys and products containing button batteries are tightly secured
Complications of a swallowed object
Sometimes swallowed objects can get stuck in the oesophagus (food pipe) and don’t pass through. Swallowed objects like button batteries can burn through the lining of the food pipe, causing serious injury or death.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: December 2019