My child swallowed a coin, what next?!

It’s extremely common for children to swallow foreign objects like coins, beads, marbles, small toys or sand through accident or purpose. Young children are attracted to shiny objects. They explore their world by touching everything, and put everything in their mouth as potential food.

The good news is, swallowed coins are scary, but rarely deadly.

Most objects that children swallow are harmless, and are passed through the digestive system and out with the faeces (poo) without any problem.

Sometimes, swallowed objects get stuck in the oesophagus (food pipe) and may not pass into the stomach. In these cases, a doctor will need to remove the object.

If you think a child has swallowed a button battery, go to your nearest hospital emergency department or call an ambulance immediately. Do not induce vomiting. If a button battery is swallowed and becomes stuck in the oesophagus (food pipe), it can burn through tissue in just two hours, causing severe injury or death.

Magnets can be dangerous when swallowed, especially if two or more are swallowed. If you think your child has swallowed a magnet, go to your nearest hospital emergency department.

If you are concerned that your child may have swallowed something poisonous, please visit the nearest hospital.

Signs and symptoms of swallowed objects

Most children have no symptoms after swallowing an object, and the object will not cause any problems.

Occasionally, the swallowed object can become stuck in the oesophagus. Take your child to a doctor or hospital emergency department if they have:

  • Difficulty swallowing food
  • Increased salivation/drooling
  • pain in the chest or neck.

Very rarely, the object can become stuck in the stomach or intestines. Take your child to a doctor or hospital emergency department if they have:

  • ongoing vomiting
  • abdominal (tummy) pain
  • blood in their vomit or poo
  • a fever.

If your child is coughing or is having difficulty breathing, the object may be in their airway or lungs. You should call an ambulance immediately if your child is having trouble breathing.

Treatment in hospital
In hospital, a doctor or nurse will ask what your child has swallowed. An X-ray may be done if the swallowed object is made of material that shows up on an X-ray, or if your child has worrying symptoms.

An x-ray showing a swallowed foreign object

Depending on what the object is and where it is in the digestive system, the object may need to be removed.

This procedure is rarely done in the emergency department. Commonly, an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) removes the object in the short procedure unit or in the operating room.

Some objects can harm the body and may need to be removed urgently. These include button batteries and magnets.
Objects in the oesophagus often need to be removed but this will depend on your child’s symptoms.
Most objects in the stomach or further along (in the intestines) will pass safely on their own.

Care at home

If doctors are unable to see a swallowed object on an X-ray and your child has no worrying symptoms, your child will be discharged and it is OK to take your child home. Observe them for any developing symptoms and take your child back to hospital if they have:

  • abdominal pain
  • ongoing vomiting
  • blood in their vomit or faeces
  • fever.

After going home, most children will not need any follow up or further X-rays. There is no need to examine your child’s faeces to find the swallowed object.

If your child swallowed a coin or a harmless object and is showing no symptoms, this may not be urgent but still seek medical advice.

Key points to remember

  • Most objects that children swallow are harmless, and pass through the digestive system without any problem. They usually pass in less than four to five days, often within 48 hours.
  • Never give laxatives or induce vomiting, and never force a child to eat or drink directly after they swallow a coin. However, the child can eat and drink normally while waiting for the coin to pass. Keeping the child hydrated will help them have normal bowel movements, which facilitates passage of the coin.
  • If you think a child has swallowed a button battery or magnet, call an ambulance or go to your nearest hospital emergency department immediately. Do not induce vomiting.
  • If your child has worrying symptoms, take them to the hospital emergency department.
  • Objects that become stuck in the oesophagus, stomach or intestines may need to be removed.

Children explore their world with their hands and mouths, it is important to be aware of your surroundings to make them as kid-proof as possible.