Coins are shiny treasures for small children. They like to throw them, they like to hide them, they like to eat them.
"It's extremely common for children to swallow foreign objects like coins, marbles, toys or sand," says Dr. Patricia Kettlehake, a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Coronado Hospital. "Young children are attracted to shiny objects. They explore their world by touching everything, and put everything in their mouth as potential food."
The good news is, swallowed coins are scary, but rarely deadly. And while your best bet is to scour your floors to make sure the hazard doesn't happen, here's what to do if it does:
First, the frightening stuff
If a child swallows a coin or small object, the most important thing to do is ensure they're not choking. Trouble breathing, swallowing or speaking are cause for immediate alarm. Make sure that you or your child's caregiver know CPR and have quick access to call 911 and visit the ER.
If the coin lodges in the esophagus, your child will exhibit signs of increased salivation, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, neck pain, chest pain or coughing. These, too, are extremely alarming — and the child should be brought to the ER immediately.
If the coin lodges in the intestine and causes tearing in the intestinal wall, the stool is often dark or bloody. The child may also experience stomach pain, vomiting and diminished bowel sounds. If any of these symptoms occur, bring your child to the ER immediately.
Lastly, be aware of what your child swallowed. Button batteries can burn a hole in the lining of the stomach within hours. And pennies issued after 1982 contain corrosive zinc that can damage the esophagus. If your child has swallowed either of these, take them to the ER immediately.
Now, the good news
If your little penny popper is acting fine, they'll probably be fine. "Eighty to 90 percent of the time, coins pass unobstructed," says Dr. Kettlehake. "They usually pass in less than four to five days, often within 48 hours."
In these cases, you should still consult with your child's doctor or after-hours line immediately. But he or she will most likely advise you to wait and watch. Never give laxatives or induce vomiting, and never force a child to eat or drink directly after they swallow a coin. However, the child can eat and drink normally while waiting for the coin to pass. Keeping the child hydrated will help them have normal bowel movements, which facilitates passage of the coin.
Here's, the fun part: If the coin has not caused an emergency situation, you'll need to strain the stool for the few days until it passes. Then toss it, hide it, frame it — but keep it far, far away from your little one.
Words of wisdom
Kids move fast — lightning fast — and it isn't always easy to track their every move. But keeping a keen eye and cleared play spaces are vital in the first few years. Money in general should never be seen as a toy, even when supervised. And toys belonging to older siblings should be carefully accounted for.
"Children explore their world with their hands and mouths," says Dr. Kettlehake, "so be aware of your surroundings to make them as kid-proof as possible."