Doctors Reveal the Most Bizarre Things Patients Have Swallowed
An amazing array of objects have found their way down a human gullet. Here are some of the strangest—and most dangerous—cases.
Category 1: Weird things kids have swallowed
Nick Veasey for Reader's Digest
When it comes to swallowing things they shouldn’t, kids are common offenders. “Babies and early toddlers explore the world in many ways, including putting things in their mouths,” says Karthik Balakrishnan, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Mayo Clinic. “They don’t know what should go in and what shouldn’t so things can accidentally be swallowed.” While buttons and coins are common, his practice has also seen children swallow Barbie shoes, safety pins, latex balloons, and part of a hearing aid mold. Cases in which children swallow multiple magnets are especially difficult because magnets that end up in different spots of the intestines can attract to each other through the tissue, making removal difficult. One eight-year-old swallowed about 30 pieces of a Magnetix set that caused eight intestinal tears, according to Mental Floss. The list of objects kids have swallowed is so varied, Boston Children’s Hospital has erected a display of odd things that have been removed from children dating back to 1918, according to STAT News, which includes a sardine tin key, chicken claw, and a 1940 reelection pin for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Category 2: Button batteries
One particular object is so dangerous, it deserves a category of its own. “For kids, we worry most about button batteries,” says Kevin Rodgers, MD, president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine. “The newer ones are lithium with a relatively high voltage. When they get stuck in the esophagus they can cause significant burns and even perforate the esophagus.” Such was the case with a 3-year-old whose parents called Poison Control when he swallowed a button battery, resulting in an emergency procedure, hospital stay, and the need to eat through a nasogastric tube for two weeks. If a child is suspected of swallowing a button battery, go to the emergency room immediately, as it needs to be removed within two hours. Here are other real-life lessons from poison control centers.
Category 3: Distracted adults
Well-meaning grown-ups can also end up with something unexpected in their esophagus or stomach. “Adults often put things in their mouths while working—safety pins while sewing, bolts—and if they get jolted they might accidentally inhale,” says Dr. Rodgers. While pins and screws are common, other accidentally swallowed objects physicians encounter include the pop tops on soda cans (they can fall into the can and be swallowed with the soda), dental appliances like bridges or partials, and toothpicks. Don’t miss these secrets the emergency room staff won’t tell you.
Category 4: Psychiatric problems
For some adults with certain psychiatric issues or dementia, swallowing odd objects can be a repeat occurrence. “They just seem to have a need to swallow things,” says Troy Madsen, MD, associate professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “For them, swallowing things feels good.” Dr. Madsen remembers a colleague’s case in which a patient with a psychiatric issue said he’d swallowed a pencil. The doctor wanted to confirm the patient had indeed swallowed a pencil but wasn’t sure if it would show up on an X-ray. So as a test, he taped a pencil to the patient’s back, reasoning that if the taped pencil showed up but a swallowed pencil did not, the patient did not in fact swallow a pencil. But the patient promptly removed the taped pencil and swallowed that as well, and the X-ray showed two pencils needing to be removed. In addition, Dr. Rodgers has seen patients swallowing multiple odd items: “On an X-ray we saw a whole array of metal objects in the GI tract, including forks and spoons.” A 2010 study in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology reported that at Rhode Island Hospital, 305 cases of “medical intervention to remove foreign bodies that were intentionally swallowed” largely involved patients who had been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and cost more than an estimated $2 million.
Category 5: Dumb drunk decisions
Drinking is another activity that can send the wrong objects down the hatch. One 18-year-old student at Bournemouth University in England who didn’t want a night of partying to end swallowed his room key to prevent friends from taking him back to his dorm, according to Mental Floss; he was told by doctors the key would ultimately “reappear” without surgery. And Ram Chuttani, MD, a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told NBC News he once removed a ping pong ball chugged by an intoxicated college student playing beer pong. Check out the most annoying things doctors say their patients do.
Category 6: Prison “breaks”
Other groups of people often treated for swallowing foreign bodies are those involved in drug trafficking and prison inmates, whom many physicians see repeatedly ingest various items—pens, batteries—as a way of getting a break from jail in order to be brought to the hospital. Dr. Madsen remembers a case in which a prisoner swallowed bed springs so many times surgeons finally determined it was greater risk to perform yet another surgical removal than to simply leave them in. Here are even more secrets your surgeon isn’t telling you.
Category 7: Just plain strange
Some cases just defy categorization. Dr. Madsen has seen adults ingest pieces of sandals and light fixtures. A small surge of instances of teenaged boys misunderstanding internet directions for homemade blowgun darts led to multiple cases of needle-shaped objects being inhaled into the boys’ airways, as reported in 2013 in Pediatrics. Rodgers also recalls an instance of swallowed Mardi Gras beads and adds, “I remember a case several years ago when someone swallowed a feather boa.” Don’t miss these emergency room stories that are almost too crazy to be true.