When kids swallow high-powered magnets: Symptoms and consequences

U.S. & World

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A child separates magnets with their teeth, and swallows. A teen pretends to have a pierced tongue. Or a tot picks up a fistful of shiny magnetic shapes, and down the hatch they go.

Easy mistakes to make with high-powered magnets.

Potentially disastrous consequences.

Don’t wait for the object to take it’s natural course, says Pediatric Emergency Medicine Doctor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Dr. Leah Middelberg. Instead, call Poison Control and get to an emergency room — fast. Because that magnet will be headed for a child’s intestines, where it can cause long-term damage as it attracts another magnet through the soft tissue.

The magnets used to be banned from sale. “During the period the ban was in effect, there was a 33% decrease in…calls, showing the ban was effective,” said Dr. Middelberg.

But in 2017, the ban was lifted. Cases skyrocketed.

“In 2018 and 2019 alone, we had 39% of all cases happened in those two years. So there’s a 444% increase in cases that they hear about just in 2018 and 2019,” Dr. Middelberg said.

The magnets, made of rare-earth materials, are more powerful than your typical refrigerator magnet.

“Two magnets can attract towards each other and attract across tissue in the body in the gut,” Dr. Middelberg explained. “There can be trapped tissue between the magnets, that tissue can die, get holes in it, release infections into the body, and cause the child to become really really sick.”

Older children can be embarrassed that they swallowed a magnet. Little kids they might not realize something dangerous happened, or are afraid of telling. To make it worse, the symptoms of high-powered magnet damage can often look innocent.

“It can look like very much like a regular stomach bug that we see so frequently in childhood: Nausea, vomiting, — later symptoms if they do start having more serious consequences — infection, fever, changes to belly, significant belly pain. It can be hard for folks to figure out it was a magnet ingestion,” said Dr. Middelberg.

“If a child is having symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and there are high-powered magnets in the house, it would be really helpful for a parent to share that information.”

Currently, the high-powered magnets are not supposed to be marketed to children under 14. Unfortunately the magnets are tiny, shiny, and numerous: in glittery colors, balls, spheres, cubes and cylinders. They come into the house as stress relievers and desk toys.

On Wednesday, May 19, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Nationwide Children’s Hospital will collaborate on injury prevention training and raise awareness about the dangers of the high-powered magnets.

If you want to take action against the sale of high-powered magnets, contact your congress person about the Magnet Injury Prevention Act.

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