Children are curious little humans. In their earliest years of life, their five senses are on high alert.
They explore their world by touching everything—even putting things in their mouth for good measure. Unfortunately, this can be a huge danger for them.
Children between the ages of six months and three years are the most likely to swallow something they shouldn’t. Most objects swallowed by children can pass through the gastrointestinal tract without any issue. However, some items can cause serious harm.
“How to deal with a foreign object your child has swallowed will vary depending on what was swallowed,” said Jasjot Johar, MD, medical director of the emergency department at Banner McKee Medical Center in Loveland, CO. “Certain objects, like those with sharp edges or chemicals, are more worrisome than a coin, but even a coin stuck in the upper airway or trachea could choke a child.”
Each year, choking causes 100,000 visits to the emergency department and is one of the leading causes of death in children—one child every five days.
Hopefully, you never have to worry about your child swallowing something dangerous. Just in case, Dr. Johar shared an easy-to-follow decision tree so you’re prepared, along with answers to frequently asked questions.
What to do if your child is choking
The following is a step-by-step guide on what to do.
Step 1: Is Your Child Breathing?
NO: Call 911 immediately!
YES: Go to Step 2.
Step 2: Can your child cough, vomit or swallow?
NO: Call 911 immediately!
YES: Go to Step 3.
Step 3: Do you know what they swallowed?
NO: Contact their health care provider for further guidance.
YES: Go to Step 4.
Step 4: Does it contain any of these?
Sharp Object: Call 911 immediately, then attempt age-appropriate Heimlich maneuver.
Batteries: Call 911 immediately, then attempt age-appropriate Heimlich maneuver.
Chemicals: Contact Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
None of these: Contact their health care provider for further guidance.
Frequently asked questions about choking
Have further questions? Here are more in-depth answers to frequently asked questions.
My child may have swallowed something but they’re not choking or gasping for air. Should I still be concerned?
Yes, even a benign object like a coin can get stuck in the esophagus leading to severe complications, including a buildup of saliva that can cause breathing issues. This is a possible, life-threatening issue and should be checked out by a medical professional right away – at the urgent care or emergency room.
My child swallowed a small object and is vomiting. She seems fine now, so should I still call 911?
Yes, while coughing or gasping for air are clear signs of danger, so is vomiting.
“If the foreign object has passed into your child’s stomach, your child may experience abdominal pain or show no symptoms at all, but vomiting is a sign that the object is stuck somewhere in their gastrointestinal tract and needs removal,” Dr. Johar said.
My child swallowed a laundry pod (like a Tide pod). Could they be in danger?
Yes, according to the National Institutes of Health, “household cleaning products rank in the top 5 most common poison exposures for children aged five years and younger.”
If you suspect your child has swallowed a laundry pod, call the Banner Poison & Drug Information Center hotline at 1-800-222-1222 immediately.
Should I try to remove the swallowed item myself?
No, don’t ever blindly put your fingers into your child’s mouth to remove an object.
“You can inadvertently push the objects further down and worsen airway issues, preventing your child from being able to breathe at all,” Dr. Johar said. “Call 911 and begin the Heimlich Maneuver until paramedics arrive. If you’re unable to dislodge with back blows and abdominal thrusts (with young children) or chest thrusts (meant for older children and adults), paramedics have the training and equipment to help your child.”
It’s highly recommended that you and anyone else who cares for your child is well-trained on this life-saving skill.
The object my child swallowed hasn’t passed in their stool (poop). Will they need surgery to have it removed?
Maybe. Larger objects or those with potential to do harm may need to be removed surgically before your child has a bowel movement.
Objects stuck in the esophagus or still inside the stomach can usually be remove endoscopically to prevent damage to the sensitive tissues. Surgery is the only option once the object passes beyond the pylorus and into the intestines, especially to remove objects that could be dangerous such as needles, tacks or chemical or corrosive items like batteries.
Call 911 if your child swallows sharp objects, batteries or chemicals. You can contact your child’s physician if you’re unsure for further guidance.
How to prevent swallowing objects or choking
Here are some tips to make choking less likely in your home:
- Cut food into small pieces with young children.
- Have your child sit up while eating, preferably in a highchair or other safe space.
- Keep loose change and small items out of reach with young children.
- Store chemicals and cleaning items securely out of the reach of children.
- Talk to your child about the hazards of swallowing toxic substances.
- Get trained in the Heimlich Maneuver, this includes you and anyone who cares for your child.
Life with young children is unpredictable, and choking is a real concern for many parents.
In most cases, the foreign body may naturally pass within a few days without causing damage. However, a foreign object, even something like a coin, can cause damage internally. It’s best to seek medical attention for your child.
If you have additional questions, talk to your child’s health care provider or find a Banner Health specialist near you at bannerhealth.com.
If you’re having an emergency related to drugs or poisoning, call 1-800-222-1222.