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I Can't Believe My Kid Swallowed That!

Toddlers and babies put everything in their mouths-it's how they explore the world around them. Fortunately, 80 to 90 percent of the items kids swallow pass through the digestive system without any problems. "Surprisingly, even sharp things such as tacks can safely go through the stomach and the rest of the gastrointestinal tract, which are lined with mucus and are incredibly pliable," says Mark Del Beccaro, M.D., associate director of the emergency division at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, in Seattle.

Still, two items you should be concerned about are button batteries and pennies. Button batteries are small enough to pass easily down the throat, but then they can get caught in the esophagus or stuck somewhere else in the digestive tract and can burn a hole in the lining within hours. If your child swallows a battery, go to the emergency room immediately. Pennies made after 1982 contain highly corrosive zinc, and if one gets lodged in the esophagus, the lining may become irritated or damaged. "If your child has swallowed a penny-or any coin-take her to your pediatrician or the emergency room right away," says Charles Howell, M.D., a pediatric surgeon at MCG Children's Hospital, in Augusta, Georgia. "Only an X ray can determine whether the coin has lodged in his esophagus or traveled to the stomach, and if it's stuck in the esophagus, it will have to be removed."

If your child swallows any other foreign object before you can stop him, don't take a wait-and-see approach. Call your pediatrician right away. Chances are the item will make it out the other end within 24 to 48 hours, so the doctor will tell you to check your child's stools every time he goes to the bathroom. If the object doesn't pass or your child begins to vomit or have abdominal pain, call your doctor again or go directly to the emergency room. Never force food, drink, or your finger down your child's throat, and don't blindly sweep a finger in his mouth, which can push the object farther down.

Emergency!

Not sure whether your child has swallowed something dangerous? If you notice any of these red flags, take action.

  • If he has trouble breathing, speaking, swallowing, or crying, do the Heimlich maneuver.
  • If his breathing is labored, if there's excessive drooling, gagging, or vomiting, or if he has a severe stomachache, call 911 or go to the E.R. immediately.
  • Fever, cough, and excessive mucus in the throat and nose could indicate a respiratory infection from a swallowed item. Call your pediatrician.

Household Hazards

These common items may cause more trouble that you'd think.

  • Art Supplies: Brightly colored crayons, plastic beads, and other art supplies are especially attractive to preschoolers. Luckily, most of these items are nontoxic and small enough to pass through the digestive system.
  • Batteries: When you throw away button batteries, make sure you toss them in a childproof container so your toddler can't knock over the wastebasket and pull one out.
  • Christmas Ornaments: Christmas-tree ornaments on low branches are major hazards. One 4-year-old got a jingle bell stuck in his esophagus; the doctor didn't even need to take an X ray?he could hear the bell when the boy jumped up and down.
  • Coins: In 2003, an estimated 30,000 children visited emergency rooms with coin-related injuries. Keep your purse and any loose change out of your child's reach.
  • Jewelry: Babies and toddlers are fascinated by jewelry, and they can pull off your earring or necklace charm and gulp it down in seconds.
  • Metallic Confetti: Shiny and colorful, the tiny confetti that comes with party favors and birthday cards looks like candy to young children. Drooling and gagging are signs this glossy stuff may be stuck to the surface of the esophagus.
  • Peanuts: Don't give peanuts to kids under 5?they can easily block a child's airway. Other dangers: popcorn, hard candies, and large chunks of food. Cut up grapes, hot dogs, and raw carrots into smaller-than-bite-size pieces.
  • Safety Pins: Babies can easily swallow safety pins; if you use cloth diapers, make sure the diaper pin is locked.

01-01-2005