The Things Children Swallow – Problems with Foreign Objects

Some objects are just not meant to be swallowed. What types of objects do children swallow? What makes them dangerous? Will they get stuck?

A foreign body is an object that is not normally meant to enter the body. They can be swallowed, causing the airway or gastrointestinal (GI) tract to become blocked. If the airway becomes blocked the patient may be unable to breathe. Children may also insert objects in their nose or ear.

The National Poisons Centre received over 120 calls about foreign bodies in 2006. Children account for over 75% of foreign body calls, and the majority of these occur in children under 5 years.

What makes a foreign body dangerous?

Size and shape
Large or strangely shaped objects are more likely to get stuck, and objects greater than 16 mm may not pass through the narrow opening of the stomach

Type of object


  • If 2 are ingested, these can attract each other across membranes causing damage

Button batteries

  • These contain corrosive substances that can cause burns if the battery leaks
  • They can also produce electrical discharge causing injury to tissue


  • These are often big enough to cause blockages
  • Some can cause metal toxicity if they do not pass naturally

Sharp objects (knives, earrings, blades, drawing pins)

  • These can cause cuts to the gastrointestinal tract
  • They may pierce right through into the surrounding areas

Lead objects

  • They can cause lead toxicity if they do not pass naturally from the GI tract

Expandable objects ("Grow a..." Toys, tampons)

  • These absorb water so they may become bigger once swallowed
  • Some objects may grow to a size that lets them become stuck

Should I be worried if someone ingests a foreign body?

It depends on the size and type of object, and if the patient has any symptoms.

If the patient is not choking

  • Check with your Poison Information Centre or other medical professional to see what treatment is necessary

If the patient is displaying signs of choking:

  • Immediately call an ambulance
  • If you are able to, follow usual first aid protocols for choking and/or resuscitation