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Foreign Bodies in the Ear, Nose, and Throat 

An infant or young child may put an object in his or her ears, nose, or mouth. Objects in the mouth may be swallowed or breathed (aspirated) into the lungs. Objects in the ears and nose can make it hard to hear or breathe and can cause infection. When an object is swallowed, the child may need general anesthesia and a procedure to remove it. An object that is aspirated may cause serious trouble breathing and needs a procedure for removal.

Foreign bodies in the ear

Foreign bodies in the ear canal can be anything a child can push into his or her ear. Some of the items that are commonly found in the ear canal include:

  • Food

  • Insects

  • Toys

  • Buttons

  • Pieces of crayon

  • Small batteries

Some objects placed in the ear may not cause symptoms. Other objects, such as food and insects, may cause pain in the ear, redness, or drainage. Hearing may be affected if the object is blocking the ear canal.

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

  • Instruments such as long, thin tweezers or forceps may be put in the ear to grab and remove object.

  • Magnets are sometimes used to remove the object if it t is metal.

  • The ear canal may be flushed with water.

  • A machine with suction may be used to help pull the object out.

After removal of the object, your child's healthcare provider will then 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 outer ear infections.

Foreign bodies in the nose

Objects that are put into the child's nose are usually soft things. These would include:

  • Tissue

  • Clay

  • Pieces of toys

  • Erasers

Sometimes, 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 appears only on the side of the nose with the object and often has a bad odor. In some cases, the child may also have a bloody nose.

Treatment of a foreign body in the nose involves prompt removal of the object by your child's healthcare provider. Sedating the child is sometimes needed to remove the object successfully. The following are some of the techniques that may be used by your child's healthcare provider to remove the object from the nose:

  • Suction machines with tubes attached may be used.

  • Instruments may be inserted in the nose.

  • The object may be "blown" out of the nose. You may be asked to hold the unaffected nostril shut and place your mouth directly over your child's mouth as if you were giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. With your child's mouth open, you can quickly and forcibly blow into their mouth. The pressure will go through the mouth, up into blocked nasal passage, and can often "blow" the object out.

After removal of the object, your child's healthcare provider may prescribe nose drops or antibiotic ointments to treat any possible infections.

Foreign bodies in the throat

A foreign body in the throat can cause choking and is a medical emergency that needs immediate attention. The foreign body can get stuck in many different places within the airway. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, death by choking is a leading cause of death and injury among children younger than 4 years of age. 

As with other foreign body problems, children tend to put things into their mouths when they are bored or curious. The child may then inhale deeply and the object may become lodged in the "airway" tube (trachea) instead of the "eating" tube (esophagus). Food may block the throat in children who don't have a full set of teeth to chew completely, or those children who simply don't chew their food well. Children also don't have complete coordination of the mouth and tongue, which may also lead to problems. Children under the age of 4 years are in the greatest danger of choking on small objects, including:

  • Seeds

  • Toy parts

  • Grapes

  • Hot dogs

  • Pebbles

  • Nuts

  • Buttons

  • Coins

Children need to be watched very closely to prevent a choking emergency.

Foreign body ingestion needs immediate medical attention. The following are the most common symptoms that may mean a child is choking:

  • Choking or gagging when the object is first inhaled

  • Coughing at first

  • Wheezing (a whistling sound, usually made when the child breathes out)

Although the initial symptoms listed above may resolve, the foreign body may still be blocking the airway. The following symptoms may mean that the foreign body is still blocking an airway:

  • Stridor (a high-pitched sound usually heard when the child breathes)

  • Cough that gets worse

  • Child unable to speak

  • Pain in the throat area or chest

  • Hoarse voice

  • Blueness around the lips

  • Not breathing

  • The child becoming unconscious

Treatment of the problem varies with the degree of airway blockage. If the object is completely blocking the airway, the child will be unable to breathe or talk and his or her lips will become blue. This is a medical emergency and you should seek emergency medical care. Do basic life support treatment for choking if you have been trained. Sometimes, surgery is needed to remove the object. Children who are still talking and breathing but show other symptoms also need to be evaluated by a healthcare professional immediately.

To prevent choking:

  • Cut foods into small pieces

  • Never let small children run, play, or lie down while eating

  • Keep coins and small items out of reach of your children

  • Read warning labels on toys

  • Learn first aid for choking

Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Maryann Foley RN BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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