The 18-year-old professional athlete experienced symptoms that confused doctors, but a colonoscopy ultimately revealed his surprising diagnosis.

By Rebecca Macatee
February 01, 2019
Toothpicks in Clear Container on Wood Table
Credit: NUM LPPHOTO/Shutterstock

February 1, 2019

We quit using plastic straws for environmental reasons, but after hearing about what happened to one teenager who unknowingly swallowed a toothpick, we're about to ban those mini death swords from our table indefinitely.

According to a report from the New England Journal of Medicine, an 18-year-old professional athlete sought medical attention after experiencing fevers, abdominal pain, nausea, and bloody stool. Doctors at three different hospitals were unable to provide a diagnosis, but a colonoscopy finally revealed the problem: A three-inch wooden toothpick lodged in the young man's colon.

The toothpick, which the unidentified teen did not remember swallowing, had pierced an artery and allowed bacteria to enter into his bloodstream. When doctors removed the toothpick, the young man suffered "life-threatening bleeding" that required additional surgeries, according to the medical report.

Six days after his second surgery, the teen was discharged from the hospital. He slowly began an intensive rehab program "with the goal of restoring his elite athlete status," the report said. Only after a final evaluation in which he received clearance from the team's internist and sub-specialists was he allowed to return to training and competition.

Seven months after swallowing that fateful toothpick, the young athlete played his first professional game. He was lucky, in a sense, because toothpick ingestion is associated with some high risk complications.

According to a study cited by the New England Journal of Medicine, 79 percent of cases involving ingested toothpicks lead to perforation and 10 percent to death.

This doesn't necessarily mean we need to outlaw toothpicks, though. As Fabian J. Scheid, M.D., a member of the young athlete's medical team, told the New York Times, "It's important to put these things in perspective."

That said, you won't find Scheid serving up hors d'oeuvres on toothpicks. "I stay away from them," he told the Times. "I don't offer them to any guests at my barbecue parties."

We'd play it safe and keep toothpicks away from little ones, for sure. Because swallowing a toothpick or any sharp or pointed object is serious, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you suspect your child has swallowed a foreign object, call your pediatrician right away. And if your child begins to vomit or have abdominal pain, you should go directly to the emergency room.