Swallowed or Inhaled Objects

Topic Overview

When you swallow food, liquid, or an object, what is swallowed passes from your mouth through your throat and esophagus into your stomach. A swallowed object will usually pass through the rest of your digestive tract without problems and show up in your stool in a few days. If food or a nonfood item gets stuck along the way, a problem may develop that will require a visit to a doctor.

Sometimes when you try to swallow, the swallowed substance "goes down the wrong way" and gets inhaled into your windpipe or lungs (aspirated). This occurs most often in children who are younger than 3 years and in adults who are older than age 50. When you inhale a substance, coughing is a normal reaction of the body to clear the throat and windpipe. The cough is helpful and may clear up the problem. Inhaling a substance into your lungs can cause a lung inflammation and infection (aspiration pneumonia).

The situation may be more serious when:

  • Signs of choking (complete airway obstruction) are present. When the windpipe is blocked, air cannot move in and out of the lungs and the person cannot talk, cry, breathe, or cough. A blocked windpipe is a life-threatening emergency.
  • Signs of a partially blocked windpipe are present. When the windpipe is partially blocked, some air can still move in and out of the lungs. The person may gag, cough, or have trouble breathing. Coughing will often pop out the food or object and relieve the symptoms. The choking rescue procedure is not recommended when the windpipe is partially blocked.
  • An object is stuck in the esophagus.
  • A poisonous object has been swallowed, such as a wild mushroom, a plant, or a chemical. For more information, see the topic Poisoning.
  • A button disc battery, magnet, or object with lead has been swallowed.
  • A swallowed object doesn't show up in the stool within 7 days.

About 80% to 90% of swallowed objects, like chewing gum, are harmless and pass through the gastrointestinal tract without problems. But some types of objects can cause more serious problems when they are swallowed. These include:

  • Sharp objects, such as open safety pins, bones, toothpicks, needles, razor blades, or broken thermometers.
  • Long objects.
  • Large objects that may get stuck in the digestive tract and require removal.

Your doctor may recommend tests such as an X-ray, endoscopy, or barium swallow to help find the object if it doesn't come out in the stool, or if an inhaled object is not coughed out. See an X-ray of a swallowed object. A special metal detector (not the same kind that people use in their yards) might be used to locate a metallic object, such as a coin, inside the body. Your doctor may then recommend a procedure to remove the object or may simply encourage you to continue to check the stool for the passage of the object.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Have you swallowed or inhaled an object?
Yes
Swallowed or inhaled object
No
Swallowed or inhaled object
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Have you swallowed or inhaled something that might be poisonous?
Yes
Ingested known or suspected poison
No
Ingested known or suspected poison
Did you pass out completely (lose consciousness)?
Yes
Lost consciousness
No
Lost consciousness
If you are answering for someone else: Is the person unconscious now?
(If you are answering this question for yourself, say no.)
Yes
Unconscious now
No
Unconscious now
Are you back to your normal level of alertness?
After passing out, it's normal to feel a little confused, weak, or lightheaded when you first wake up or come to. But unless something else is wrong, these symptoms should pass pretty quickly and you should soon feel about as awake and alert as you normally do.
Yes
Has returned to normal after loss of consciousness
No
Has returned to normal after loss of consciousness
Did the loss of consciousness occur during the past 24 hours?
Yes
Loss of consciousness in past 24 hours
No
Loss of consciousness in past 24 hours
Are you having trouble breathing (more than a stuffy nose)?
Yes
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
No
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
Would you describe the breathing problem as severe, moderate, or mild?
Severe
Severe difficulty breathing
Moderate
Moderate difficulty breathing
Mild
Mild difficulty breathing
Have you swallowed a disc battery, a magnet, or an object that contains a lot of lead, such as certain toys or a fishing sinker?
Yes
Swallowed disc battery or magnet or lead object
No
Swallowed disc battery or magnet or lead object
Have you swallowed an object that was sharp (like a toothpick, pin, bone, or needle) or long?
Long means at least 2 in. (5 cm) for adults and older children and at least 1.25 in. (3 cm) for babies and young children.
Yes
Swallowed sharp or long object
No
Swallowed sharp or long object
Do you have pain in your throat, chest, or belly after swallowing or inhaling an object?
Yes
Pain in throat, chest or belly since swallowing or inhaling object
No
Pain in throat, chest or belly since swallowing or inhaling object
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
Have you had mild pain for more than an hour?
Yes
Mild pain for more than 1 hour
No
Mild pain for more than 1 hour
Within the past 2 days, did an object get caught in your throat and cause you to choke?
Yes
Choking episode within past 2 days
No
Choking episode within past 2 days
Are you coughing or wheezing?
Yes
Coughing or wheezing now
No
Coughing or wheezing now
Are you coughing up blood?
This means blood that is coming up from your chest or throat. Blood that is draining down from your nose into your throat (because of a nosebleed, for example) is not the same thing.
Yes
Coughing up blood
No
Coughing up blood
Were back blows or the Heimlich maneuver used to dislodge the food or object from the throat?
Yes
Back blows or Heimlich maneuver was used
No
Back blows or Heimlich maneuver was used
Are you gagging or having trouble swallowing?
Yes
Gagging or having trouble swallowing
No
Gagging or having trouble swallowing
Are you drooling and not able to swallow?
Yes
Drooling and unable to swallow
No
Drooling and unable to swallow
Do you think an object may be stuck in your throat?
Yes
Feels like object is stuck in throat
No
Feels like object is stuck in throat
Have you vomited?
Yes
Vomiting
No
Vomiting
Have you vomited blood or what looks like coffee grounds?
If there is only a streak or two of blood that you are sure came from your nose or mouth, you are not vomiting blood.
Yes
Has vomited blood or what looks like coffee grounds
No
Has vomited blood or what looks like coffee grounds
Have you vomited more than once?
Yes
Vomited 2 or more times
No
Vomited less than 2 times
Has it felt like something has been stuck in your throat for more than 30 minutes?
Yes
Object in throat for more than 30 minutes
No
Object in throat for more than 30 minutes
Have you had any changes in your bowel movements after swallowing an object?
Yes
Changes in bowel movements after swallowing an object
No
Changes in bowel movements after swallowing an object
Are your stools black or bloody?
Yes
Black or bloody stools
No
Black or bloody stools
Have you had:
At least 1 stool that is mostly black or bloody?
At least 1 stool mostly black or bloody
At least 1 stool that is partly black or bloody?
At least 1 stool partly black or bloody
Streaks of blood in your stool?
Streaks of blood in stool
Have you swallowed a coin?
Yes
Swallowed coin
No
Swallowed coin
Did you swallow the coin more than 24 hours ago?
Most coins pass through the body without a problem in 24 hours. If you don't pass the coin in this time frame, it's best to follow up with your doctor.
Yes
Swallowed coin more than 24 hours ago
No
Swallowed coin more than 24 hours ago
Has the coin passed out of your body in your stool?
Yes
Coin has passed out of body in stool
No
Coin has passed out of body in stool
Do you still have concerns more than a week after swallowing an object?
Yes
Concerns about object swallowed more than 1 week ago
No
Concerns about object swallowed more than 1 week ago

Blood in the stool can come from anywhere in the digestive tract, such as the stomach or intestines. Depending on where the blood is coming from and how fast it is moving, it may be bright red, reddish brown, or black like tar.

A little bit of bright red blood on the stool or on the toilet paper is often caused by mild irritation of the rectum. For example, this can happen if you have to strain hard to pass a stool or if you have a hemorrhoid.

Certain medicines and foods can affect the color of stool. Diarrhea medicines (such as Pepto-Bismol) and iron tablets can make the stool black. Eating lots of beets may turn the stool red. Eating foods with black or dark blue food coloring can turn the stool black.

If you take a medicine that affects the blood's ability to clot, such as aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), enoxaparin (Lovenox), or clopidogrel (Plavix), it can cause some blood in your stools. If you take a blood thinner and have ongoing blood in your stools, call your doctor to discuss your symptoms.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Poisoning

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Severe trouble breathing means:

  • You cannot talk at all.
  • You have to work very hard to breathe.
  • You feel like you can't get enough air.
  • You do not feel alert or cannot think clearly.

Moderate trouble breathing means:

  • It's hard to talk in full sentences.
  • It's hard to breathe with activity.

Mild trouble breathing means:

  • You feel a little out of breath but can still talk.
  • It's becoming hard to breathe with activity.

Disc batteries are small, round batteries used in toys, cameras, watches, and other devices. Because of the chemicals they can release, they can cause serious problems if they are swallowed or get stuck in an ear or the nose. Small magnets used in household items and objects that contain a lot of lead (such as bullets, buckshot, fishing weights and sinkers, and some toys) also can cause problems if swallowed.

  • If a disc battery is stuck in the ear or nose:
    • The battery needs to be removed right away—within 1 hour if possible.
    • Use tweezers to try to remove the battery. If you can't remove it, get medical help.
  • If you have swallowed a disc battery, magnet, or lead object:
    • Get medical help right away.
    • Do not try to vomit.
    • Do not eat or drink anything.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call911or other emergency services now.

Pain in children under 3 years

It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.

Severe trouble breathing means:

  • The child cannot eat or talk because he or she is breathing so hard.
  • The child's nostrils are flaring and the belly is moving in and out with every breath.
  • The child seems to be tiring out.
  • The child seems very sleepy or confused.

Moderate trouble breathing means:

  • The child is breathing a lot faster than usual.
  • The child has to take breaks from eating or talking to breathe.
  • The nostrils flare or the belly moves in and out at times when the child breathes.

Mild trouble breathing means:

  • The child is breathing a little faster than usual.
  • The child seems a little out of breath but can still eat or talk.

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:

  • You may feel a little out of breath but still be able to talk (mild difficulty breathing), or you may be so out of breath that you cannot talk at all (severe difficulty breathing).
  • It may be getting hard to breathe with activity (mild difficulty breathing), or you may have to work very hard to breathe even when you’re at rest (severe difficulty breathing).

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

Home Treatment

The following home treatment may help relieve discomfort after you swallow an object into your digestive tract.

  • Do not cause (induce) vomiting unless your doctor or the poison control center specifically instructs you to do so. Vomiting could cause you to inhale (aspirate) the object into your windpipe or lungs.
  • Drink liquids. If swallowing liquids is easy, try eating soft bread or a banana. If eating soft bread or a banana is easy, try adding other foods. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may help move the swallowed object through the digestive tract.
    • Continue to drink more liquids until the object has passed in your stool. Extra fluid will help the object move through the digestive tract. The object should pass within 7 days.
    • Watch your stools to see if the object has passed. Do not use a laxative unless your doctor tells you to.

Note:

Do not use syrup of ipecac. It is no longer used to treat poisonings. If you have syrup of ipecac in your home, call your pharmacist for instructions on how to dispose of it and throw away the container. Do not store anything else in the container.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • New symptoms develop, such as:
    • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or coughing.
    • Pain in the throat, chest, or belly.
    • Vomiting, especially vomit that contains blood.
    • Blood in the stool, such as red, black, or tarry stools.
  • The swallowed object does not pass in the stool in 7 days.
  • Your symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

To prevent children younger than 4 years from swallowing or inhaling objects:

  • Carefully supervise young children.
  • Keep small items out of your child's reach.
  • Teach children not to put anything other than food in their mouths.
  • Do not give children foods that may cause choking. These include hard, smooth, or chewy foods that must be chewed with a grinding motion or foods that are round and can easily get stuck in the throat. These types of food are more likely to be swallowed improperly or inhaled.
  • Have children, especially toddlers, sit down to eat their food.
  • Cut food into small pea-sized pieces.
  • Do not feed your child while he or she is crying or breathing rapidly.
  • Discourage talking, laughing, or playing while your child has food or beverages in his or her mouth.
  • Do not give young children small objects that may cause choking, such as marbles or jacks.
  • Look for age guidelines when selecting toys for children.
    • Do not let your child play with a toy if he or she is younger than the recommended age for the toy.
    • The safest toys for small children are at least 1.25 in. (3 cm) around or 2.25 in. (6 cm) in length.

For more information about how to prevent accidental poisoning, see the topic Poisoning. Keep the poison control center number for your area readily available.

Practice the following suggestions when eating, and teach them to your children. Children may copy your behavior.

  • Cut your food into small pieces.
  • Eat small bites slowly and carefully, and chew your food thoroughly.
  • Do not laugh or talk with food in your mouth.
  • Do not eat or drink while you are involved in another activity, such as driving.
  • Do not hold objects such as pins, nails, and toothpicks in your mouth and lips.
  • Avoid excessive drinking of alcohol while eating.

To be prepared for a choking emergency, take an approved first aid course such as those that are sponsored by the American Heart Association or the American Red Cross.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What was swallowed or inhaled? What was the size of the object?
  • When did it happen?
  • What are your main symptoms? How have the symptoms changed since swallowing or inhaling the object?
  • Did your symptoms come on gradually or suddenly?
  • Have you had a change in your bowel habits?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David Messenger, MD
Last Revised July 3, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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