What is a foreign body?

The most common parts of the body for foreign objects to be found are the ears, nose, airway, and stomach.
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What is a foreign body?

A foreign body is something that is in the body but does not belong there. Foreign objects can be inserted accidentally or intentionally, be inhaled or swallowed, or result from an injury. Foreign bodies are most commonly found in children, who frequently insert things into their mouths, ears, and noses.

What are the symptoms of a foreign body?

Some common symptoms of a foreign object in the body include:

  • Pain: Discomfort may range from mild to severe.
  • Nasal/Ear drainage: If objects are inserted into the nose or ears, drainage may occur.
  • Choking: If an object is stuck in the throat, it can cause choking, coughing and wheezing, difficulty swallowing, or a sensation of a lump in the chest or throat.
  • Breathing problems: An object blocking an airway may cause difficulty breathing.
  • Bowel obstruction: An ingested foreign object may not be able to move through the intestines, causing an obstruction.

If the person is choking or having trouble breathing, seek emergency medical attention or call 911.

What causes a foreign body?

The most common parts of the body for foreign objects to be found are the ears, nose, airway, and stomach.

Both children and adults can accidentally inhale objects in their mouths, such as food or gum. Children are especially prone to this.

Out of natural curiosity, young children may place objects into their ears or nose. Objects that commonly become stuck in the ears or nose include:

  • Crayon tips
  • Small toys or toy parts
  • Food
  • Tissue
  • Pencil erasers
  • Buttons
  • Insects
  • Pebbles
  • Seeds
  • Small batteries

If your child has swallowed a battery or a magnet, seek immediate medical attention – this is an emergency situation.

If an object is trapped in an airway, seek immediate medical attention or call 911.

Objects can also pass into the stomach. Coins are the objects most commonly swallowed by children. Often, if the object is in the gastrointestinal tract and is a benign object such as a coin, it may pass in the stool.

How is a foreign body prevented?

Since young children are at the highest risk of putting foreign objects in their bodies, prevention involves keeping small objects out of reach.

About 80 percent of foreign body ingestions pass through the gastrointestinal tract without causing any symptoms or complications.

Items that are small and rounded are less likely to cause complications. If the foreign body is large, sharp, or toxic, urgent medical intervention is necessary.

How is a foreign body treated?

The treatment for a foreign item in the body usually involves removing the object.

To remove a foreign body in the eye:

  • Pull out the lower eyelid or press down on the skin below the eyelid to see underneath it.
  • If the object is visible, try tapping it with a damp cotton swab.
  • For a persistent object, try to flush it out by flowing water on the eyelid as you hold it open.

If an object becomes lodged in the ear:

  • Remove the object if possible. If the object is clearly visible, pliable, and can be grasped easily with tweezers, gently remove it.
  • Don’t probe the ear with a tool such as a cotton swab. This risk pushing the object farther in and damaging the ear.
  • Try using gravity. Tilt the head to the affected side to try to dislodge the object.
  • Try washing the object out. Provided there are no ear tubes in place, use a rubber-bulb ear syringe and release warm water into the ear that contains the object. Turn the head to the side of the ear you are cleaning so the water runs out along with the object.

To remove a foreign object from the nose:

  • Have the person breathe through their mouth.
  • For an adult with an object partially out of the nose, try to remove it with fingers or tweezers. Do not push it further into the nose.
  • For an object deeper in the nose, pinch the clear side of the nose closed. Have the person blow their nose hard several times. This may dislodge the object.
  • Do not try to grab or pull an object that is stuck up a child’s nose, to avoid further injury. Try gently closing the unaffected nostril, and with your mouth over the child’s mouth, blow a puff of air into the child’s mouth. Repeat as necessary. The force of the air can sometimes release the object from the affected nostril.
  • If minor bleeding occurs after object removal, firmly pinch the nose shut for 10 minutes. You can also put a cold pack on the nose or cheeks for bleeding, to help constrict blood vessels, which will help slow the bleeding.

You can usually safely remove a small foreign object – such as a wood splinter, thorn, fiberglass, or glass – if it is lodged just under the surface of the skin:

  • Wash your hands and clean the area well with soap and water.
  • Use tweezers cleaned with rubbing alcohol to remove the object. Use a magnifying glass to help you see better.
  • If the object is under the surface of the skin, sterilize a clean, sharp needle by wiping it with rubbing alcohol. Use the needle to gently break the skin over the object and then lift up the tip of the object.
  • Use tweezers to grab the end of the object and remove it.
  • Wash the area again and pat dry. Apply petroleum jelly or an antibiotic ointment.

See a health care provider if:

  • You are unable to remove the object or can only remove part of it.
  • The object poses immediate danger.
  • The person continues to experience pain.
  • You are not comfortable removing the object.
  • The person has bleeding from the nose that is difficult to control.
  • There is fluid with an unpleasant odor draining from the nose.
  • There is discharge from the ear canal.
  • There is reduced hearing or a sensation of something lodged in the ear.
  • The injury involves an eye or is close to an eye.
  • The wound is deep (cuts deeper than ¼ of an inch beneath the surface of the skin) or dirty (easily susceptible to infection as a result of exposure to unsanitary conditions). For deep and dirty wounds, the health care provider may recommend a tetanus vaccination booster at the time of the visit.

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