If you breathe a foreign object into your nose, mouth, or respiratory tract, it may become stuck. This can cause breathing problems or choking. The area around the object also can become inflamed or infected.
Children ages 6 months to 3 years are the age group most likely to breathe in (inhale) a foreign object. These items may include nuts, coins, toys, balloons, or other small items or foods.
Young children can easily inhale small foods (nuts, seeds, or popcorn) and objects (buttons, beads, or parts of toys) when playing or eating. This may cause a partial or total airway blockage.
Young children have smaller airways than adults. They also can't move enough air when coughing to dislodge an object. Therefore, a foreign object is more likely to get stuck and block the passage.
Sometimes, only minor symptoms are seen at first. The object may be forgotten until symptoms such as inflammation or infection develop.
First aid may be performed on an infant or older child who has inhaled an object. First aid measures include:
Be sure you are trained to perform these first aid measures.
Any child who may have inhaled an object should be seen by a doctor. A child with a total airway blockage requires emergency medical help.
If choking or coughing goes away, and the child does not have any other symptoms, he or she should be watched for signs and symptoms of infection or irritation. X-rays may be needed.
A procedure called bronchoscopy may be needed to confirm the diagnosis and to remove the object. Antibiotics and breathing therapy may be needed if an infection develops.
DO NOT force feed infants who are crying or breathing rapidly. This may cause the baby to inhale liquid or solid food into their airway.
Call a health care provider or local emergency number (such as 911) if you think a child has inhaled a foreign object.
Preventive measures include:
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.