Contributor: Paula Sabella, MD
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Infants and young children will eat the strangest things. Serve them a nutritious meal, and they’ll fight you. They’ll be happy to indulge, however, on a shiny coin, small battery or colorful toy.
To prevent problems, keep potential ingestion hazards away from young children — up high, out of sight, and out of reach. Below, find a list of the more common issues we see.
The following are benign items will usually work their way out, but call your doctor with any concerns — especially if you notice these symptoms in your child: coughing, gagging, trouble swallowing, drooling, chest pain, stomach pain, vomiting, or problems going to the bathroom.
Gum: Gum is a fairly benign item that your child may accidentally or intentionally swallow.
First, let’s dismiss the old wives’ tale. Gum does not stay in a person’s stomach for seven years. Although it’s true that gum cannot be digested, a small wad of gum will usually make its way out of the child’s stomach in a couple of days.
The biggest danger is if the amount of gum is large enough to cause choking. Otherwise, if your child swallows the gum without other symptoms, you typically don’t need to take the child to a pediatrician or the emergency department.
Modeling clay: Most of the major brands of modeling clay, such as Play Doh, are nontoxic and say so on the container. Unless a child eats a large amount, most modeling clay should not cause serious problems, other than possibly some mild diarrhea. If your child ingests a significant amount or feels sick, then you should make a trip to the doctor or emergency department.
Small toy pieces: These are a little trickier. Most small toys with rounded edges will pass through a child’s digestive system within a few days. A sharp-edged or a larger piece can sometimes cause problems. For this reason, if a child swallows a sharp or large piece of a toy, it is best to call your pediatrician and plan on a visit or a trip to the emergency room for evaluation.
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The following items are hazardous when ingested and need a doctor’s immediate attention:
Lithium and alkaline batteries: Lithium batteries, also known as button batteries, are small and round, and can cause significant problems if ingested. Button batteries are commonly found in toys, hearing aids, key fobs and watches. The batteries are loaded with dangerous chemicals that can be very harmful to a child’s digestive system. Regular, alkaline batteries are also extremely dangerous if swallowed, but that’s less likely because of their larger size.
If the child swallows any type of battery, this is considered an emergency and you should immediately take your child to a hospital emergency department.
Magnets: Magnets can cause a lot of damage in a child’s GI tract. If your child swallows a magnet, or if you think your child swallowed a magnet, you should take him to a hospital emergency department immediately.
Coins: Coins are one of the most common items that children swallow. If your child swallows a coin, take him or her to the pediatrician or to a hospital emergency department. Although most small coins will pass through a child’s GI tract, it is important to know where the coin is in the child’s digestive tract. An xray may be necessary to ensure that the coin is passing through the digestive tract normally.
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Don’t ignore these symptoms
After swallowing an object, if your child develops coughing, gagging, trouble swallowing, drooling, chest pain, stomach pain, vomiting, or problems going to the bathroom, you should either contact your pediatrician’s office or take your child to a hospital emergency department.
Remember, prevention of ingestion is key. Encourage children to play with age-appropriate toys. Closely monitor and always observe your child as he or she grows, develops and explores his world.
Your child’s pediatrician is a phone call away. If your child swallows something, don’t wait for symptoms to appear. If you are uncertain or concerned about something your child has swallowed, you can also contact the National Capital Poison Center hotline: 1-800-222-1222.