- Sometimes people accidentally swallow something they shouldn’t.
- Some swallowed objects can progress through the body without a problem and can pass in stools (poo), but some objects can be very dangerous if they are swallowed.
- Objects that are particularly dangerous when swallowed including button batteries — these can cause serious injury or death.
- Other objects that are very dangerous to swallow include large and sharp objects, magnets and objects made of lead.
- If you or your child has swallowed a dangerous object, or is having trouble breathing, go to the nearest hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
If you think you or your child has swallowed a button battery or magnet, dial triple zero (000) and ask 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?
Sometimes people accidentally swallow something they shouldn’t. Children often put things in their mouths, because they are naturally curious and explore their environment by putting things in their mouths. Sometimes this can lead them to swallow things that are dangerous, 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 swallowed objects that aren’t poisonous.
If you think you or your child has swallowed a poison, call the Poisons Information Line on 13 11 26.
Some swallowed objects can progress through the body without a problem and can pass in stools (poo). These objects usually cause no problems:
- small stones or pebbles
- pips or stones from fruit
- teeth (if they have been knocked out)
Some objects can be very dangerous if they are swallowed. These include:
- large objects more than 6cm long or wider than 2.5cm
- a magnet, especially two or more magnets
- objects made of lead
- button batteries (they can 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.
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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 — how do I know if someone swallowed an object?
A child often won’t have any symptoms when they have swallowed an object. Symptoms differ depending on where in the body the object becomes stuck. Objects can get stuck along the digestive (food) tract. If an object is stuck in the oesophagus this can cause your child to drool, have pain in their neck or chest or have difficulties swallowing food. If an object becomes stuck in the stomach or intestines this may cause vomiting, tummy pain, blood in their vomit or blood in their poo or a fever.
If your child is coughing or having difficulty breathing, the object may be stuck in their airways or their lungs. Read more on the healthdirect page on Inhaled substance or foreign object.
If you or someone near you is having trouble breathing, call triple-zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
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.
Children at highest risk are aged 6 months to 4 years. Other children at risk include children with developmental or behavioural problems or those with digestive tract abnormalities.
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. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance, or go to the nearest hospital emergency department, if you think you are in danger.
Are you experiencing suicidal thoughts? Read this healthdirect article, or call Lifeline: 13 11 14.
How is a swallowed object diagnosed?
In hospital, a medical team will talk to you about what object was swallowed. They may do an x-ray if the object is made of a material that will show up on x-ray.
How is a swallowed object treated?
Depending on what object was swallowed and where it is stuck in the digestive system, the object may need to be removed. Button batteries and magnets need to be removed immediately.
Objects in the oesophagus often need to be removed, depending on symptoms. Most objects in the stomach or intestines will pass safely on their own. 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.
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 your child to chew properly
- cutting up foods and avoiding hard foods like nuts until 5 years of age
- 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
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Last reviewed: May 2022