Why More Kids Are Going To The ER For Swallowing Objects

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What did you just eat? (Photo: Getty Images)

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Gulp. A study published in Pediatrics showed that the rate of young kids going to emergency departments for swallowing non-food items more than doubled from 1995 to 2015. And most of these non-food items weren’t good things to swallow, like pride.

These findings came from an analysis performed by a research team from Nationwide Children’s Hospital (Danielle Orsagh-Yentis, Rebecca J. McAdams, Kristin J. Roberts, and Lara B. McKenzie). It was a NEISS (pronounced “nice”) study. NEISS stands for National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a database that tracks people who suffer product- or activity-related injuries and then go to one of approximately 100 hospital emergency departments in U.S. For this study, the research team searched NEISS for kids less than six years of age who went to emergency departments for swallowing foreign bodies during the time period spanning from 1995 to 2015. This search found 759, 074 such cases during this time period. In 1995, there were 9.5 such visits per 10, 000 children. In 2015, this rate had jumped by 91.5% to 18 per 10,000 children.

Here were the most common objects swallowed:

  • Coins (61.7%)
  • Toys (10.3%)
  • Jewelry (7.0%)
  • Batteries (6.8%)

The top-swallowed item adds new meaning to wanting your kids to change. Most (65.9%) of the ingested coins were pennies. 

Over the two decades of the study period, there was an over 150-fold increase in the rate of batteries ingested. This was probably driven by the increasing use of button batteries, which are quite small and comprised 85.9% of the batteries swallowed. If the researchers had found an increase in the number of car batteries swallowed by kids then that would have had other implications.

If a swallowed object is something small enough, smooth, non-magnetic, and without harmful chemicals, it will probably eventually pass via poop. In a Lego swallowing study that I wrote about previously for Forbes, the FART (Found and Retrieved Time) score for five Lego-swallowing adults volunteers ranged from a little over one day to about three days. Problems arise when the swallowed object is shaped in a way that may damage or get caught up in the kid’s gastrointestinal tract or contain dangerous substances like batteries do.

This Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia video shows additional dangers of button batteries including carrying an electrical charge:

If your kid swallows a button battery, call Poison Control and your doctor as soon as possible.

Then there are magnets, which can be an attractive situation. But not in a good way. If you swallow one magnet, the last thing you want to do is swallow another one. Because magnets are like Ted Mosby and Robin Schabowski from the television series How I Met Your Mother. They keep trying to get back together again, even if it means twisting, turning, and even tearing through your intestines. This can severely damage or block your intestines, which may be require emergency surgery.

This CNN segment shows a case of a kid swallowing 37 magnets:

Therefore, if your kid swallowed a magnet, call your doctor.

The study’s numbers probably underestimate the rate of kids swallowing non-food items. Not all such ingestions may result in visits to emergency departments. A parent may just wait for the object to pass or take the kid to a clinic instead. In fact, the parent may not even realize that the kid has swallowed an item. Sometimes missing coins may go unmissed or at most result in “Hmm, I thought I had a 77 cents in change but looks like I only have 20.”

What’s been driving this increase in swallowed non-food items? Well, the increased availability of smaller and smaller household items such as button batteries may be factor. After all, many mobile devices that have smaller parts such as smartphones didn’t really exist back in 1995. But that wouldn’t explain the increase in coins swallowed. Coins have decreased in value but not in size. Are parents just leaving more stuff around their homes? Perhaps. Another question is whether parents are more distracted and paying less attention their kids, allowing their kids to roam around more unattended. After all, while you are busy arguing with others on Facebook, your toddler may vacuuming up coins like his Ponzi scheme has just been discovered.

Regardless of the reasons, it is important to remember that little kids put things in their mouths. That’s how they figure things out and explore the world. Of course, eventually, most kids grow out of this habit, otherwise they’d be fired from their real estate and marketing jobs. At least, they should be. But as long as you have kids less than six years old roaming around in your home, make sure that you take proper precautions. Don’t leave out in the open things that you wouldn’t want swallowed. This includes items that may be removed from other objects, such as button batteries. Make sure that all swallow-able items are properly stored and secured. Beware of toys and household items that may be separable or detachable. Unless you are Magneto, keep your kids away from magnets. Avoid purchasing small items that you can’t manage properly.

And, of course, pay attention to your kids and what they are doing. Time passes faster than you may anticipate and so might 57 cents in change.

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