News | Published March 19, 2013

Magnet ingestion a growing and life-threatening problem in children

Many parents have experienced a child who has swallowed a foreign object - a toy, a coin, or even a magnet.

While this used to be somewhat harmless, parents need to be aware that today's higher-powered magnets can pose a higher risk of injury in young children.

"Modern magnet technology has transformed what was once an esoteric subtype of foreign-body ingestion into a common and lethal threat," writes Daniel Rosenfield, MD, department of pediatrics, The Hospital for Sick Children and co-author of a new study presented in Canadian Medical Association Journal.

It used to be that after a child ingested a magnet, physicians recommended a wait-and-see approach to treatment - expecting a child to pass the magnet without any risk of other health problems.

Today's magnets are 10-20 times stronger than older magnets and can adhere to one another while passing through the twists and turns of the gastrointestinal tract.

"Swallowing a single magnet is generally innocuous, much like swallowing any other inert foreign body. However multiple magnets, especially when swallowed at different times, can attract to each other through loops of the gastrointestinal tract. The force created through the bowel or stomach wall may result in pressure necrosis and eventual perforation."

Typical treatment when multiple magnets are ingested includes removal by endoscopy or laxative therapy or, if absolutely necessary, surgery.

The report states that "awareness and prevention" are important in combating the problem and avoiding injury.

The bottom line is that you should be extremely careful when handling magnets and keep them away from young children. If there is a chance that your child has ingested a magnet, the child should be evaluated right away by taking the child to the closest emergency department.