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Pediatric Foreign Body Ingestion Treatment & Management

  • Author: Gregory P Conners, MD, MPH, MBA; Chief Editor: Timothy E Corden, MD  more...
Updated: Aug 03, 2015

Prehospital Care

See the list below:

  • Most children who have swallowed a foreign body do not require specialized care. For the large majority, providing comfort care while transporting to an emergency department is all that is required.
  • Patients with drooling may require suction.
  • Children benefit by being allowed to remain with their parents and being allowed to assume a position of comfort.
  • Although a theoretical risk of spontaneously vomiting and then aspiration of a foreign body exists, this is unusual. Children should not routinely be intubated to protect their airways.
  • Similarly, do not attempt to dislodge a foreign body from a spontaneously breathing patient by giving abdominal thrusts or syrup of ipecac.
  • If available, discussions regarding management of unusual foreign bodies with the local poison control center may be helpful.

Emergency Department Care

The usual goal of ED management is to localize the position of the ingested foreign body. Patients with drooling, marked emesis, or altered mental status (likely from excess vagal stimulation) may require supportive measures to protect the airway.

Most patients should undergo radiographic imaging as described above. Metal detectors may be used to locate metallic foreign bodies. Even radiopaque foreign bodies may be difficult to localize. Referral for endoscopy should be considered.

Remember that children with no symptoms may have impacted foreign bodies and that children with foreign body sensation or pain may not. Radiographs of about 15% of children presenting to the ED after witnessed coin ingestions do not show a coin. Although some will have vomited or otherwise removed the ingested object before their evaluation, this suggests that not all children with even witnessed foreign body ingestions have truly ingested something.

  • Esophageal foreign bodies
    • Objects found within the esophagus should generally be considered impacted. Because impacted esophageal foreign bodies may lead to significant morbidity (and even mortality), removal of impacted esophageal foreign bodies is mandatory. An important exception is blunt esophageal foreign bodies (except button [disk] batteries) that are well tolerated and are known to have been in place for less than 24 hours (see Spontaneous passage below).
    • Endoscopy (esophagoscopy) is by far the most commonly used means of removal and is usually the procedure of choice. Most children with esophageal foreign bodies are stable. Endoscopy usually can be delayed until the child's stomach is emptied and a surgical team is assembled. However, pointed objects, such as an embedded esophageal thumbtack, should be removed as rapidly as possible to avoid further injury to the esophageal mucosa and mediastinitis. Impacted button (disk) batteries are notorious for rapidly causing local necrosis and should be removed from the esophagus without delay. Children with esophageal food impaction, an unusual finding in childhood, may benefit from endoscopic evaluation, perhaps with biopsies, of the esophageal mucosa.[1]
    • Because endoscopy is relatively invasive and expensive, other methods of esophageal foreign body removal have been investigated and are probably more cost-effective when used appropriately. Both have been performed most commonly on children with esophageal coins. Because any esophageal foreign body may pass spontaneously, chest radiography should be performed immediately prior to any removal procedure.
      • Foley catheter method: Blunt foreign bodies may be removed by use of a Foley catheter. Typically, the patient is restrained in a head-down position on a fluoroscopy table, and an uninflated catheter is passed until distal to the object. The catheter is then inflated and gently withdrawn, drawing the foreign body with it. One some occasions, the object is dislodged and passed into the stomach. Progress is typically monitored fluoroscopically. This procedure is performed without radiographic monitoring at some centers with extensive experience.  Only experienced personnel should perform this procedure, and it should be reserved for previously healthy children whose ingestion of a blunt object was witnessed less than 24 hours prior to the procedure.
      • Bougienage method: Blunt esophageal foreign bodies may be advanced into the stomach with a bougie. While the child is sitting upright, the lubricated instrument is gently passed down the esophagus, dislodging the object. The object is then expected to pass through the rest of the GI tract; thus, this procedure should not be performed on children with known lower GI tract abnormalities. A brief observation period and a repeat radiograph should follow any removal procedure to rule out retained foreign bodies and other complications (eg, pneumomediastinum). Because any esophageal foreign body may pass spontaneously, chest radiography should be performed immediately prior to any removal procedure. Again, only experienced personnel should perform this procedure, and it should be reserved for healthy children whose ingestion of a blunt object was witnessed less than 24 hours prior to the procedure.
      • -The bougienage method has been shown to be far more cost-effective than endoscopy, for properly selected patients.[20, 21, 22]
      • -Emergency department rapid sequence intubation, followed by removal of esophageal coins with Magill forceps and/or a Foley catheter, has been shown to be safe and effective in children.[23]
    • Spontaneous passage: Blunt foreign bodies located at the LES often spontaneously pass within several hours of ingestion. This has been best studied in coin ingestions. Previously healthy children may be given food and drink and have repeat radiographs 24 hours following ingestion. Often, the coin passes through the LES, and a removal procedure can be avoided.[24, 20]
    • Although blunt foreign bodies located in other areas of the esophagus are less likely to spontaneously pass, this strategy may be an appropriate alternative for stable children with normal esophageal anatomy and a foreign body in the thoracic inlet or the mid esophagus.[25] This may be most successful in asymptomatic children.
  • Complications: Children with significant complications such as airway involvement, peritonitis, or hematemesis (possibly heralding exsanguination from an aortoenteric fistula), should be referred to an appropriate surgeon without delay.
  • Stomach/lower GI tract
  • Most swallowed foreign bodies harmlessly pass through the GI tract once they have reached the stomach. Treatment of children with known abnormalities of the GI tract or previous problems with foreign bodies should be discussed with a specialist, preferably one familiar with the child.
  • Unusual foreign bodies: Very sharp or pointed objects may perforate the GI tract (sewing needles are notorious). Therefore, such objects should be endoscopically removed from the stomach. If such an object has passed into the intestines, early consultation with a surgeon is recommended. Objects that are too long (eg, >6 cm) or too wide (eg, >2 cm) to pass through the pyloric sphincter should be removed from the stomach.
  • Button (disk) batteries in the stomach or intestines do not need to be removed immediately, as they generally pass through the lower GI tract without difficulty. Button batteries retained in the stomach or at a fixed spot in the intestines should be removed. One strategy is to instruct families to observe the stool for the battery and to return for a repeat radiograph if it is not passed in 2-3 days. If a battery is still in the stomach at that time, it should be endoscopically removed. If it is in the intestines, its progress should be intermittently monitored via radiographs, to be sure it is progressing.
  • Body packers (ie, patients who have ingested wrapped packages of drugs to avoid detection during transport) are at risk of death if the packets rupture. Such patients should be hospitalized and whole-bowel irrigation considered. Consultation with a poison control center is suggested.


See the list below:

  • The treatment of children with known GI tract disorders should be discussed with a physician familiar with the child whenever possible.
  • Experienced personnel, such as a pediatric surgeon, otolaryngologist, or gastroenterologist, should perform endoscopy.
  • Psychiatric consultation is indicated for those with a suspected or confirmed associated psychiatric problem.

Surgical Care

A study presented the outcome of surgical treatment of esophageal perforations due to foreign body impaction in children along with a management algorithm. The study concluded that esophageal perforation following foreign body impaction is rare and requires prompt treatment. Surgical treatment tailored to the needs of individual patients is associated with a successful outcome and decreased morbidity.[26]

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Gregory P Conners, MD, MPH, MBA Director, Division of Emergency and Urgent Care, Children's Mercy Hospital; Vice Chair of Pediatrics for Emergency and Urgent Care; Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine

Gregory P Conners, MD, MPH, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: Academic Pediatric Association, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Pediatric Society, American Academy of Pediatrics, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Wayne Wolfram, MD, MPH Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Mercy St Vincent Medical Center; Chairman, Pediatric Institutional Review Board, Mercy St Vincent Medical Center, Toledo, Ohio

Wayne Wolfram, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American Academy of Pediatrics, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Timothy E Corden, MD Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Co-Director, Policy Core, Injury Research Center, Medical College of Wisconsin; Associate Director, PICU, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin

Timothy E Corden, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, Phi Beta Kappa, Society of Critical Care Medicine, Wisconsin Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Jerry R Balentine, DO, FACEP, FACOEP Vice President, Medical Affairs and Global Health, New York Institute of Technology; Professor of Emergency Medicine, New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine

Jerry R Balentine, DO, FACEP, FACOEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, New York Academy of Medicine, American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, American Association for Physician Leadership, American Osteopathic Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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A swallowed coin lodged at the thoracic inlet. Image courtesy of Gregory Conners, MD, MPH.
A swallowed radiolucent object (plastic guitar pick) is made visible in the upper esophagus after ingestion of barium. Image courtesy of Raymond K. Tan, MD, and Gregory Conners, MD, MPH.
Lateral radiograph demonstrating the distinctive two-step profile of a button (disk) battery in the esophagus.
Frontal view of same esophageal button (disk) battery; note distinctive double-circle appearance, useful to differentiate a button battery from a coin.
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