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Foreign Bodies in the Digestive Tract

By

Zubair Malik

, MD, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2023
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Topic Resources

Foreign bodies are ingested objects that can get stuck in the digestive tract and sometimes perforate (pierce) it.

  • Foreign bodies may be accidentally or intentionally swallowed.

  • Foreign bodies may cause no symptoms or may cause symptoms depending on where they become stuck.

  • The diagnosis may be based on a combination of x-rays, endoscopy, or sometimes computed tomography.

  • Most foreign bodies pass without treatment, but some need to be removed endoscopically, surgically, or manually.

Foreign bodies can get stuck in various parts of the digestive tract such as the

Foreign bodies may be accidentally swallowed. Children may swallow small, round foods (such as grapes, peanuts, or candies), which may become stuck. In addition, curious infants and toddlers often accidentally swallow a wide variety of inedible objects (such as coins and disk or button batteries), some of which become stuck in the esophagus. People who wear dentures, older people, and intoxicated adults are at risk of accidentally swallowing inadequately chewed food (particularly meat such as steak or hot dogs), which may become stuck in the esophagus.

Sometimes foreign bodies are swallowed purposely, as when smugglers (body packers Body Packing and Body Stuffing To smuggle illegal drugs across borders or other security checkpoints, people may voluntarily swallow packets filled with drugs or hide those packets in body cavities. If a packet tears, a drug... read more ) or body stuffers swallow balloons, packages, or vials filled with illegal drugs to evade detection. People who have mental health disorders may also purposely and repeatedly swallow foreign bodies.

If undigestible objects are small, they pass through the digestive system until they are passed with stool. However, larger objects or sharp ones, such as toothpicks and chicken or fish bones, may get stuck in the esophagus or stomach or at areas of the intestine that have sharp turns or are naturally narrow or narrowed by disease, a previous surgery, tumors, or abnormal structures. Objects that pass all the way through the intestines may still become stuck in the rectum.

Symptoms of Foreign Bodies in the Digestive Tract

Foreign bodies cause symptoms depending on the nature of the foreign body and where it becomes stuck.

Foreign bodies in the esophagus

A small blunt object that is swallowed may cause the sensation of something being stuck in the esophagus and difficulty swallowing Difficulty Swallowing Some people have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). In dysphagia, foods and/or liquids do not move normally from the throat (pharynx) to the stomach. People feel as though food or liquids become... read more (dysphagia). This feeling may persist for a short time even after the object has passed into the stomach. A small sharp object that is swallowed may become lodged in the esophagus and cause pain, even though the person is able to swallow normally. When the esophagus is completely blocked, the person is unable to swallow anything, even saliva, and drools and spits constantly. The saliva may be stained with blood, and the person may gag and choke. The person may try to vomit, but nothing comes up.

Foreign bodies in the stomach and intestines

If a foreign body is partially or completely obstructing the stomach, the small intestine, or, rarely, the large intestine, it may cause cramps, bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting (see Intestinal Obstruction Intestinal Obstruction An obstruction of the intestine is a blockage that completely stops or seriously impairs the passage of food, fluid, digestive secretions, and gas through the intestines. The most common causes... read more ).

Foreign bodies in the rectum

Complications of foreign bodies in the digestive tract

Even a blunt object, if tightly impacted in the esophagus for many hours (for example, more than 24 hours), can cause serious problems. The impacted object can put enough pressure on the wall of the esophagus to cause death of that part of the esophagus and risk of perforation, resulting in mediastinitis Mediastinitis Mediastinitis is inflammation of the mediastinum (the chest cavity, which contains the heart, the thymus gland, some lymph nodes, and parts of the esophagus, aorta, thyroid, and parathyroid... read more .

People who have swallowed disk or button batteries, which can eat away at the lining of the esophagus or stomach, may have burns of the esophagus or stomach. This may rapidly progress to perforation of the esophagus or stomach, and so the swallowed battery needs to be removed from the esophagus or stomach as soon as possible.

Sometimes foreign bodies lead to blood in the stool.

If a person has swallowed an object filled with drugs, the object may rupture, which can then lead to an overdose of the drug.

Diagnosis of Foreign Bodies in the Digestive Tract

  • Imaging tests (typically x-rays)

  • Endoscopy

Often, a foreign body can be seen on x-rays of the abdomen and sometimes of the chest. Sometimes other imaging tests, such as computed tomography (CT), may be done to help identify and locate the foreign body.

Usually, endoscopy Endoscopy Endoscopy is an examination of internal structures using a flexible viewing tube (endoscope). In addition to examinations, doctors can use endoscopy to do biopsies and give treatment. Endoscopes... read more (a visual examination of the digestive tract using a flexible tube called an endoscope) is done to determine the nature and exact location of the foreign body and to rule out a tumor or other disorder.

Imaging Tests for Foreign Bodies in the Digestive Tract

Foreign bodies that are stuck in the rectum can often be felt by a doctor during a digital examination, in which the doctor inserts a gloved finger in the person's rectum.

Doctors may use a hand-held metal detector to detect metallic foreign bodies (such as coins and batteries), which is especially helpful in children. However, these metallic objects are usually detected with x-rays or sometimes a CT scan.

Treatment of Foreign Bodies in the Digestive Tract

  • For foreign bodies in the esophagus, glucagon or endoscopy

  • For foreign bodies in the stomach, endoscopy

  • For foreign bodies in the intestines, occasionally endoscopic or surgical removal

  • For foreign bodies in the rectum, manual or endoscopic removal

Some foreign bodies pass spontaneously and require no treatment. Sometimes a doctor recommends that the person consume a lot of liquids to help excrete the object. Some small objects, such as toothpicks and fish bones, may remain in the gastrointestinal tract for many years without causing symptoms.

Foreign bodies in the esophagus

People who do not have symptoms of obstruction and who have not ingested a sharp object, disk or button batteries, or drug packets are observed by a doctor for up to 24 hours to see whether the object passes on its own. When a doctor suspects that a piece of food is stuck in the esophagus, the medication glucagon may be given by vein (intravenously) to relax the esophagus and allow the food to pass spontaneously through the digestive tract.

A doctor typically removes a foreign body that has not passed out of the esophagus within 24 hours because a delay in removal increases the risk of complications, including perforation, and decreases the likelihood of a successful removal.

Doctors can remove some objects that are stuck in the esophagus by pushing them into the stomach using an endoscope or by removing them with forceps, a net, or a basket passed through an endoscope.

Because sharp objects may pierce the wall of the esophagus, they must be removed urgently by endoscopy Endoscopy Endoscopy is an examination of internal structures using a flexible viewing tube (endoscope). In addition to examinations, doctors can use endoscopy to do biopsies and give treatment. Endoscopes... read more . Batteries must also be removed urgently from the esophagus because they can cause internal burns.

Foreign bodies in the stomach and intestines

Doctors typically do endoscopy to remove sharp objects from the stomach because they can cause perforation. Doctors also do endoscopy to remove

  • Batteries that cause symptoms or signs of stomach injury

  • Any objects that have been in the stomach longer than 3 to 4 weeks

  • Batteries that have been in the stomach for more than 48 hours but have not caused injury

  • Objects that are larger than 1 inch (about 2.5 centimeters) in diameter in the stomach

  • Any magnets that can be reached with the endoscope

Small, round objects, such as coins, may pass on their own. Doctors advise people to check their stool to see if the object has passed. If the object does not appear in the stool, doctors do repeated x-rays to check whether the object has passed.

Foreign bodies that exit the stomach and pass into the small intestine usually pass the digestive tract with no problems. However, if a short, blunt object is stuck in the small intestine for more than 1 week and cannot be removed with endoscopy or the person has symptoms of intestinal obstruction, doctors may remove it surgically.

When an object suspected of being filled with drugs is detected in a person who does not have symptoms, the person is hospitalized and closely monitored in an intensive care unit Types of units People who need specific types of care while hospitalized may be put in special care units. Intensive care units (ICUs) are for people who are seriously ill. These people include those who have... read more (ICU). Doctors may do surgery if the person has

  • Symptoms of intestinal obstruction

  • Symptoms of drug overdose (suggesting the object is leaking drugs)

  • Not passed the object after a considerable time

Doctors usually do not do endoscopy to remove a drug-filled object because there is a high risk it may break open during removal and cause a serious overdose.

Foreign bodies in the rectum

A foreign body in the rectum may be removed endoscopically or manually depending on the type of object. Sometimes manual removal will require the person's anus to be numbed with injections of a local anesthetic Local anesthesia and regional anesthesia Surgery is the term traditionally used to describe procedures (called surgical procedures) that involve manually cutting or stitching tissue to treat diseases, injuries, or deformities. However... read more and held open with a special instrument. Doctors are then able to use forceps to grasp and remove the object. This procedure may require heavy sedation.

After removal of a foreign body, doctors may look in the rectum and in the lower part of the colon using a flexible tube called a sigmoidoscope to rule out injury or perforation.

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