Children are curious by nature and find many ways to explore their worlds, as well as their bodies. Unfortunately, this curiosity can become harmful when objects of exploration become foreign bodies. Children of any age can encounter this problem, but foreign bodies occur most frequently in children ages 6 months to 4 years. Foreign bodies may be ingested, inhaled, or placed in orifices such as the nose or ears.
Airway Foreign Bodies
Objects may become lodged in the upper throat, larynx, trachea, or bronchi (passages to the lungs). Smaller objects make it further down into the airway, while larger objects tend to lodge in the upper throat or larynx. Objects in the airway can be a life-threatening emergency and require immediate medical attention.
Ingested Foreign Bodies
Swallowed foreign bodies are fairly common in children. Coins are one of the more common items to be swallowed. Most of the time, especially with small objects, the foreign body will simply pass through the system without harm. Items can become lodged in the esophagus, however, and block the child’s ability to swallow. Items lodged in the upper esophagus also run the risk of shifting and obstructing the airway. Certain objects can cause serious problems and should be addressed immediately. Button batteries, for example, can quickly corrode and lead to severe injury to the esophagus, even within a couple of hours. Any suspicion of button battery ingestion should be treated as a true emergency.
Foreign Bodies in the Nose or Ear
Children commonly place small objects into the ear or nose. This may be witnessed or reported by the child at the time it occurs, or may manifest later because of pain or infection. A recurring one-sided sinus infection in a child should always prompt evaluation for a nasal foreign body. Foreign bodies in the ear canal can also cause cases of outer ear infection (“swimmer’s ear”). In some cases, these foreign bodies can be removed in the office setting. In other cases, a brief anesthetic in the operating room may be necessary to safely and comfortably remove the foreign body.