It is a well-known fact among parents that children sometimes put things such as dried beans, small toys, or beads in their ears, nose, or mouth. Such inappropriate objects may cause harm if immediate medical attention is not provided. Often, caregivers are unaware that a child has taken in such an object and this makes getting the right treatment more difficult.

The symptoms caused by these objects range from discomfort and pain, to decreased hearing, changes or noises from breathing, difficulty swallowing or choking and sometimes drainage especially from objects in the ear or nose. If there is difficulty breathing, the object could cause serious problems and immediate action should be taken.

Doctors call these objects foreign bodies. A recent medical study has shown that with some people it is hard to see certain types of foreign bodies with the naked eye. It recommends that “these cases should be referred directly to otolaryngologists for otomicroscopic removal or removal with special light scopes.” In other words, an ear, nose, and throat specialist physician should remove such objects to avoid further harm.

Facts about foreign bodies in the ear, nose, and airway

  • Children under age five are the most likely to ingest foreign bodies in the ear, nose, or airway. But teenagers and irresponsible adults have been known to engage in such activities as well, though these are often accidental happenings.
  • Foreign bodies in the ear canal are found most often in children between the ages of two and four.
  • Airway obstruction from foreign bodies may cause suffocation and death. This accounts for nearly nine percent of accidental deaths in the home, especially among children under the age of five years.
  • About five percent of all children swallow coins, and a coin-swallower’s average age is three.

Foreign bodies in the ear
Children usually place things in their ear canal because they are bored, curious, or copying other children. Sometimes one child may put an object in another child’s ear during play. It is important for parents to be aware that children may cause themselves or other children great harm by placing objects in the ear. There may also be a link between chronic outer ear infections and children who tend to place things in their ears. Insects may also fly into the ear canal, causing potential harm. Any child with a chronically draining ear should be evaluated for a foreign body.

Some of the items that are commonly found in the ear (usually the canal) of young children include the following: food, insects, toys, buttons, pieces of crayon, and small button-shaped batteries. Teenagers sometimes have objects imbedded in the ear lobe due to an infection from a pierced ear or a poorly healed piecing.

The treatment for foreign bodies in the ear is prompt removal of the object by your child’s physician. The following are some of the techniques that may be used by your child’s physician to remove the object from the ear canal:

  • instruments may be inserted in the ear;
  • magnets are sometimes used if the object is metal;
  • cleaning the ear canal with water;
  • filling the ear with mineral oil to suffocate an insect; and
  • use of a suction machine to help pull the object out.

After removal of the object, your child’s physician will re-examine the ear to determine if there has been any injury to the ear canal. Antibiotic drops for the ear may be prescribed to treat any possible infections.

Foreign bodies in the nose
Objects that are put into the child’s nose are usually, but not always, soft things like tissue, clay, and pieces of toys or erasers. Harder objects, much like those commonly put in the ear, may also be put into the nose. From time to time, a foreign body may enter the nose while the child is trying to smell the object.

The most common symptom of a foreign body in the nose is nasal drainage. The drainage often has a bad odor. Parents should suspect a foreign body and not a “cold” when drainage is from only one nostril. In some cases, the child may also have a bloody nose.

Foreign objects in your child’s nose should be removed promptly. Sedating the child is sometimes necessary in order to remove the object successfully. This may necessitate a trip to the hospital, depending on the extent of the problem and the cooperation of the child. Some of the techniques that your child’s physician may use to remove the object from the nose include suction machines with tubes attached or instruments such as small tweezers called forceps.

After removal of the object, your child’s physician may re-examine the nose with a special fiber optic light looking for another foreign body or may prescribe nose drops or antibiotic ointments to treat any possible infections.