When you swallow food, liquid, or an object, what is swallowed passes from your mouth through your throat and esophagus into your stomach. A swallowed object will usually pass through the rest of your digestive tract without problems and show up in your stool in a few days. If food or a nonfood item gets stuck along the way, a problem may develop that will require a visit to a doctor.
Sometimes when you try to swallow, the swallowed substance "goes down the wrong way" and gets inhaled into your windpipe or lungs (aspirated). This occurs most often in children who are younger than 3 years and in adults who are older than age 50. When you inhale a substance, coughing is a normal reaction of the body to clear the throat and windpipe. The cough is helpful and may clear up the problem. Inhaling a substance into your lungs can cause a lung inflammation and infection (aspiration pneumonia).
The situation may be more serious when:
- Signs of choking (complete airway obstruction) are present. When the windpipe is blocked, air cannot move in and out of the lungs and the person cannot talk, cry, breathe, or cough. A blocked windpipe is a life-threatening emergency.
- Signs of a partially blocked windpipe are present. When the windpipe is partially blocked, some air can still move in and out of the lungs. The person may gag, cough, or have trouble breathing. Coughing will often pop out the food or object and relieve the symptoms. The choking rescue procedure is not recommended when the windpipe is partially blocked.
- An object is stuck in the esophagus.
- A poisonous object has been swallowed, such as a wild mushroom, a plant, or a chemical. For more information, see the topic Poisoning.
- A button disc battery, magnet, or object with lead has been swallowed.
- A swallowed object doesn't show up in the stool within 7 days.
About 80% to 90% of swallowed objects, like chewing gum, are harmless and pass through the gastrointestinal tract without problems. But some types of objects can cause more serious problems when they are swallowed. These include:
- Sharp objects, such as open safety pins, bones, toothpicks, needles, razor blades, or broken thermometers.
- Long objects.
- Large objects that may get stuck in the digestive tract and require removal.
Your doctor may recommend tests such as an X-ray, endoscopy, or barium swallow to help find the object if it doesn't come out in the stool, or if an inhaled object is not coughed out. See an X-ray of a swallowed object . A special metal detector (not the same kind that people use in their yards) might be used to locate a metallic object, such as a coin, inside the body. Your doctor may then recommend a procedure to remove the object or may simply encourage you to continue to check the stool for the passage of the object.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.