Why Children Swallow Magnets and How To Prevent It
If you are a parent or caregiver, you are likely aware of the dangers associated with young children swallowing batteries and other small objects. Now a new study warns adults to note a significant increase in the number of children who swallow magnets and how they can take steps to prevent these episodes.
Why are magnets a problem?
You might ask yourself, “Why are kids swallowing magnets?” Is there something especially appealing or magical about magnets?
Although magnets may not be magic, they seem to hold some fascination for young children. In fact, according to the authors of the new study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, the number of cases of children swallowing magnets has risen more than fivefold over the last decade, and the consequences have frequently been serious enough to require surgery.
Magnets are a serious swallowing hazard for the same reason button batteries and other small objects are dangerous: kids are curious and have a tendency to stick items into their mouth, ears, nose, or even their genital area. According to the University of Washington investigators, the incidence of injury associated with ingesting magnets was 0.57 cases per 100,000 children (younger than 21 years) between 2002 and 2003, but that number rose to 3.06 cases per 100,000 between 2010 and 2011.
Investigators evaluated 893 cases of magnet ingestion. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of magnets ingested were swallowed, according to the study, while 21% were placed into the nostrils. Surprisingly, however, less than one quarter (23.4%) of the magnets kids took in internally were reported to be tiny or small, which means more substantial magnets are being ingested, exposing children to a chance for more significant damage.
Some kids don’t stop at just one, ingesting multiple magnets. According to Dr. Jonathan Silverman, the study’s lead author and a member of the department of pediatrics at the University of Washington, “the risk of intestinal damage increases dramatically when multiple magnets are swallowed,” with some children requiring surgery to remove them.
What can parents and caregivers do
Silverman noted that at least among children who ingested multiple magnets, the types most often involved magnets found in adult desk gadgets or kitchen items (e.g., magnets for the refrigerator). Young children often view these products as toys and so are drawn to play with them.
The average age of children who swallow magnets is 5.2 years, but the age is nearly double (10.1 years) for those who put magnets up their nose. Why? Silverman suggested these older children may be imitating the placement of nose, tongue, lip, and cheek piercings popular among some adolescents and young adults.
The reviewers also noted that most of the ingested magnets and the multiple magnet ingestion occurred in 2007 or later. This observation deserves further investigation.
In previous studies, investigators noted that magnetic toys were becoming more popular, and this increase coincided with a rise in the number of cases of children ingesting magnets. Although the presence of a single small magnet in the digestive system typically passes through and is eliminated in stool without causing a problem, kids who swallow several magnets present a unique problem.
Basically, when kids swallow several magnets, the individual items are attracted to each other and can become blocked or trapped in the soft tissues. In such cases, a fistula (an opening that forms between tissues) can form and lead to a serious illness if it is not detected and treated.
According to Dr. Anil T. George, of Queens Medical Center, although it “may be impossible to prevent small children from occasionally swallowing objects, we would highlight to parents the potential harm that could arise from multiple magnet ingestion.” He urged parent to be more cognizant of the types of toys and other products with magnets that their children have access to while also asking toy manufacturers to be more aware of this problem.
Similarly, parents and other adults should be aware that children may also swallow batteries. A June 2012 article appearing in Pediatrics noted that the number of emergency department visits associated with battery ingestion had risen nearly twofold between 1990 and 2009.
The swallowed batteries were mostly those used to power not children’s toys but items such as hearing aids, watches, calculators, and remote controls. Therefore, parents should secure these items out of reach of children, as youngsters are often adept at opening the battery casings, even if they are supposed to be childproof.
If you are the parent of young children, take a few moments to look about your home for items that involve magnets and batteries. That time will be well spent if you can help prevent your child from swallowing or otherwise ingesting magnets or batteries.
George AT and Motiwale S. Magnet ingestion in children—a potentially sticky issue? Lancet 2012 Jun 23; 379(9834): 2341
Sharpe SJ et al. Pediatric battery-related emergency department visits in the United States, 1990-2009. Pediatrics 2012 June 12; 129(6): 1111-17
Silverman JA et al. Increase in pediatric magnet-related foreign bodies requiring emergency care. Annals of Emergency Medicine 2013 Aug 8;