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Swallowed object

5-minute read

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. Most small non-toxic items will progress through the body without problem and be passed in stools (poo). The following objects usually cause no problems:

  • small stones or pebbles
  • pips or stones from fruit
  • teeth (if they’ve 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

When should I call an ambulance/go to the emergency department?

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if someone has:

  • trouble breathing
  • coughing that won’t stop
  • wheezing (or a whistling sound while breathing)
  • drooling or bringing up saliva
  • loss of consciousness
  • swallowed a button battery

You should go to the nearest emergency department for an assessment if you or your child has swallowed magnets or batteries or if the object was large.

Things which are pointy — like toothpicks or broken chicken bones — very occasionally cause problems. They may seem okay at first, but can cause problems within a day or two in the bowel. If you or your child has swallowed something sharp and pointy, you should speak to a doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222.

What should I do while waiting for the ambulance?

Do not eat or drink anything until you have spoken to a healthcare professional. This is in case you need to go to hospital where the object may need removing — you will need an empty stomach.

It is very important not to try to make yourself vomit as this could cause choking or block your airway.

What are the warning signs/symptoms of a swallowed object?

Often a child won’t have any symptoms of a swallowed 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 the object is stuck in the stomach, it can cause ongoing vomiting, tummy pain, blood in the poo or a fever.

If your child has damage to their digestive system, some signs might be blood in their saliva, spitting blood or black poos.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our swallowed or inhaled substances Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes a swallowed 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.

Find out more about self harm.

How is a swallowed object diagnosed?

In hospital, the 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’s no pain, no problems breathing and you or the child can eat or drink, you may be able to go home. You’ll have to go back to hospital if breathing problems, tummy pain, fever, vomiting or an inability to eat or drink develop.

You should check any bowel movements for the object. It will usually pass 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.

Can a swallowed object be prevented?

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.

Resources and support

Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26.

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

Last reviewed: December 2019


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