Swallowed foreign objects in kids
I was called to see a poor young fella up at our country hospital the other week and the case got me thinking about the above topic. As we all know, kids are delightfully inquisitive and adventurous. Of course Freud provided us with the five psychosexual development stages. The oral stage is first and spans from birth to around 21 months of age. Unfortunately this stage coincides with the period in which children become increasingly mobile and can evade the watchful eyes of parents. It follows then that the risk of objects being swallowed also increases. (Interestingly, our ED collueges tend to see many adults stuck on the 2nd and 3rd psychosexual stages presenting with interesting radiological findings….)
However a large observational study in 1999, found that the mean age was 5.2 years (Cheng, Tam; 1999). Although many objects will pass through unobstructed, there are a few cases in which emergent care and/or watchful waiting must be undertaken. Like any medical problem a proper history, examination, investigation and treatment plan is required.
The primary objective is to glean what the foreign body is and when it was ingested. Sometimes this isn’t always obvious as the parent was not present at the time. An important strategy is to bring a replica of the object. Especially when dealing with lego, disc batteries or hair clip if possible. Any reports abdominal pain or blood in the stool is important. A history of developmental or intellectual delay can also be associated with major complications given a delay in presentation and vague symptomatology. This extends to adults with such disabilities and should always be considered in any case of abdominal pain in this population.
A list of commonly swallowed objects:
- Bones (chicken, fish)
- Safety pins
- Drawing pins
- Soft drink lids
- USB sticks
- Large coins (ie 20 and 50 cent pieces)
- Hair clips
- Button/disc batteries
The demeanour of the child may provide hints as to how far the object has progressed. A child with an oesophageal foreign object may be in distress, vomiting, drooling, and irritable or refusing oral intake. Those with objects in the stomach conversely, may be asymptomatic. However these presentations are not the rule and further investigations sought. Palpation of the abdomen can be normal, but signs of peritonism or localised tenderness point to perforation. Generally, examination will be unremarkable.
Plain x-ray (XR) is indicated for any metallic foreign objects. The role of XR is to demonstrate that the foreign object has passed the oesophagus. In this case, the object will be below the diaphragm in the stomach. Mouth to anus imaging is usually required.
The alkaline nature of these batteries (used in watches and hearing aides) can erode tissue when in contact with moist mucous membranes. If stuck in the oesophagus as seen on XR, these should be removed urgently or the child retrieved to a centre that can perform endoscopy. The tissue destruction can occur in a matter of hours. On the other hand, asymptomatic children with subdiaphragmatic batteries can be observed at home. The stool must be searched and a repeat XR performed after 3-4 days if it has not passed.
Coins & Hair clips
If the offending currency/clip reaches the stomach, there is usually no treatment or intervention required unless symptoms arise. If the agent is stuck in the proximal or middle oesophagus, then semi-urgent endoscopy is required. Although they lack the chemical effect of disc batteries, they can still cause pressure necrosis and perforate. Distal oesophageal objects can be observed with follow up XR. Check stool for passage.
The most important question apart from those covered above are: what sort of magnet and how many were swallowed. Recently, there has been a growing trend of ingested strong magnets causing perforation, obstruction and even fistulae. Fatal attraction indeed. So magnets may need urgent surgical intervention even below the oesophagus.
A young man that I went to college with had skolled a pint of beer at a pub night that had a dollar coin at the bottom. When he presented to ED that night, the coin was found to be subdiaphragmatic. Palpation over the stomach was performed asking “are we on the money here?” and the patient was sent home to ‘pass the buck.’
I saw the poor young girl in ED in late 2011, above, who had on her birthday accidentally swallowed her shiny new hair clip and inadvertently got butterflies in her stomach. I didn’t follow up as to whether she was given a replacement.
Another comes from Dr. Scott, my affable GP supervisor had this gem on hand:
‘James’ was brought into A&E this afternoon after swallowing a St Christopher medallion. We x-rayed him and confirmed that this had passed the diaphragm. We have reassured the parents that the medallion should pass with time and without complication. We have, however, advised them to see you or represent here should St Christopher’s own travels be unduly delayed.
Final pearls of wisdom:
- Find out what it was and when it was swallowed
- Foreign bodies in the stomach or intestine should pass in 99% of cases (with normal anatomy)
- Most complications involve foreign bodies in stuck in the oesophagus
- Plain x-ray can localise a metallic foreign body and stratify into oesophageal and subdiaphragmatic
- Caution with disc batteries!
Murtagh, J. (2008) John Murtagh’s general practice. (4th Edition). Sydney: McGraw-Hill Australia.
Cameron P, et al. (2012) Textbook of paediatric emergency medicine. (2nd Edition). Sydney: Elsevier.
Cheng W, Tam PKH. Foreign body ingestion in children: experience with 1266 cases. J Pediatr Surg 1999;34:1472-6.