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Swallowed or Inhaled Objects
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
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
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, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or 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.
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.
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.
A large amount of blood in the stool may mean a more serious problem is present. For example, if there is a lot of blood in the stool, not just on the surface, you may need to call your doctor right away. If there are just a few drops on the stool or in the diaper, you may need to let your doctor know today to discuss your symptoms. Black stools may mean you have blood in the digestive tract that may need treatment right away, or may go away on its own.
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 aspirin or some other medicine (called a blood thinner) that prevents blood clots, 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Current as of: July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine