My Toddler Swallowed a Penny—Now What?

Kids will put almost anything in their mouth. Here's what to do if your little one swallows a foreign object, such as a coin, art supplies, button battery, or fluoride toothpaste.

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, there are a few major items you should be concerned about. Here are some household items your child might swallow, and what to do if it happens.

Household Swallowing Hazards

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

Art Supplies: Brightly colored crayons, 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.

Button Batteries: 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. 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.

Coins and Pennies: 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." Avoid this type of accident by keeping your purse and any loose change out of your child's reach.

Fluoride Toothpaste: It's fine if your child swallows the recommended amount of fluoride toothpaste (usually a pea-sized amount). But if your child ingests a greater portion, you might consider contacting poison control (although he'll likely just suffer from stomach upset).

Gum: Small amounts of chewing gum will pass normally through the digestive tract.

Jewelry: Babies and toddlers are fascinated by jewelry, and they can pull off your earring or necklace charm and gulp it down in seconds.

Magnets: Swallowing more than one magnet could be dangerous, as they could pull together through tissue.

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.

Illustration and Animation by Yeji Kim

Peanuts and Small Snacks: Don't give peanuts to kids under 5, as they can easily block a child's airway. Other dangerous snacks include popcorn, hard candies, and large chunks of food. Cut up grapes, hot dogs, and raw carrots into smaller-than-bite-size pieces. Don't let children eat whole cherries, as they can swallow the pit.

Safety Pins: Babies can easily swallow safety pins; if you use cloth diapers, make sure the diaper pin is locked. In rare cases, the sharp edge of a safety pin can tear the esophagus.

Small Toys: Tiny toys like marbles, as well as pieces of plastic packaging, might also entice young children. Rounded toys with smooth edges should pass through the digestive tract, but let your doctor know if she starts exhibiting unusual symptoms. Also seek help if your child swallows something sharp, or if he ingests large amounts of kinetic sand; this could become lodged in the bowels.

Tooth: Your child might swallow a baby tooth if it becomes loose and dislodged. Most of the time, swallowed teeth won't cause any issues.

My Child Swallowed a Foreign Object—Now What?

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.

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.
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles