The holidays are coming. Children are happily making their lists for Santa and parents are busy buying gifts, hoping to choose toys that will spark their children’s creative spirit. But with some of these toys there is a danger, especially for smaller children.
Parents should be especially aware of the dangers from “magnet toys.” These toys (e.g. Buckyballs) have many, small, high-powered magnets that allow you to make (and remake) flexible, creative shapes that are attractive and fun for a child.
The danger exists because the powerful magnets are small enough for a child to easily swallow several at once. Swallowing a high-powered magnet carries special risks if any other metal object, including another magnet, has been swallowed.
Initially, if a child swallows magnets there might be no symptoms, giving a false sense of relief. In some cases, the child may initially gag or look like they are choking on the toy, but this is not always the case. It may be many hours, or even days, before the dangerous symptoms like abdominal pain begin, but by then the injury has occurred.
Once inside the intestines, if another magnet or metal object is present, the magnet can lock onto it. If this happens next to the wall of the intestine it can cause enough damage that the weakened intestines can burst open. This can quickly become a life-threatening situation and children may require emergency surgery.
If you think a child has swallowed magnets checking for symptoms may not be enough. In most cases, an X-ray will be needed to determine if they swallowed the magnets, and where they are (stomach, intestines, etc.), and most importantly, how many. If there is more than one it might require abdominal surgery to remove them.
We have also seen older children and adolescents swallow these toys, but for a different reason. In some cases they use them to pretend they have piercings, putting one magnet inside their cheek and one outside (the magnets are powerful enough to hold through the cheek wall) or pretend they have a tongue piercing (putting one magnet on top of the tongue and one on the bottom). This can cause them to accidentally swallow the magnet. The risk of injury is the same as is it for younger children.
If you think a child has swallowed any of these items, the first step is to call your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222. Since these items are particularly dangerous, swallowing them could mean a trip to the hospital.
Please enjoy the holidays, but if you have small children in the home, remember that their wonderful, curious nature could put them in harm’s way. This is one group of toys you might want to cross off of Santa’s list. If you have questions call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222. You will get an expert 24/7, even on Christmas!
Henry Spiller is the director of the Central Ohio Poison Center. He has spent more than 30 years in toxicology, with more than 300 publications in the field.
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