Children love to put things in their mouths and, unfortunately, there’s always the danger of swallowing small objects. About 80 percent of these “foreign bodies” pass through the digestive system without incident, especially if they’re small and not sharp. Curious children might wonder what would happen if they swallowed a magnet or two. What happens can be a serious problem.
The photo shows an x-ray of a 9-year-old Italian boy who swallowed 23 magnets, some of them round, most of them rectangular. You can actually count all 23, aligned end-to-end like a string of dominos, punctuated by a few large dots.
One small magnet might pass uneventfully through the digestive system. If there are multiple magnets, however, they are very likely to attract each other through the intestinal wall. This can cause severe damage. Problems include cell or tissue death (pressure necrosis), a hole in the intestines (perforation), an abnormal connection between two segments of the intestines (intestinal fistulas), a twisting of the intestines (volvulus) that blocks the passage of food (or magnets), and obstruction.
The main source of magnets swallowed by children seems to be toys and building sets. Boys seem to swallow magnets more often than girls, which could be a function of the types of toys offered to boys. The articles listed below in Sources describe a number of cases and include the symptoms that alerted parents to a problem.
In the case of the nine-year-old boy who swallowed 23 magnets, they were safely removed from his digestive tract with no complications.
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Luigi Avolio, M.D., Ingested Magnets, The New England Journal of Medicine, June 25, 2009, Vol. 360 No. 26, p. 2770.
Nicholas Bakalar, Toy Magnet Swallowed? No Problem. Two? Call 911, The New York Times, February 12, 2008
Center for Disease Control, Gastrointestinal Injuries from Magnet Ingestion in Children — United States, 2003–2006, December 8, 2006
A.E. Oestrich, Swallowing Multiple Magnets Poses Danger to Children, ScienceDaily, October 29, 2004
Small Magnets Are Injuring Children; CPSC Releases Stronger Warning to Parents, Consumer Product Safety Commission, April 19, 2007