Swallowed Small Magnets – More Than Tots and Toys

Health & Wellness |


Magnets have been a common component of various children toys for years – from magnetic toys meant to attach to each other to alphabet letters and kitchen/refrigerator toys or magnets. However, more recently a trend has developed in the sale of rare earth, or neodymium, magnets. These magnets are often marketed as “desk toys” for adults. These magnets are typically sold in packs of multiples, sometimes numbering 100 or more in a single pack. Magnets are beginning to appear in other products at high risk of accidental ingestion – including jewelry. High powered magnets may be used in non-piercing nose rings, ear rings, lip and tongue rings.

Emerging Trends of Magnet Ingestions

A recent article published in the July edition of JPGN (Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition) highlights a growing trend of magnet ingestion.* This study examined data collected on magnet ingestion in the US collected by the National Electronic Surveillance System.  In 2002, there was an estimated 327 visits to emergency departments for magnet ingestion. This number increased to an estimated 2,770 visits for magnet ingestion in 2011. Children suspected of ingesting small or round magnets (more likely to be high powered rare earth magnets) were more likely to be older than five years of age. Children suspected of ingesting more than one magnet were also more likely to be older than five years of age, with an average age of just over seven years.*

The Danger of Multiple Magnet Ingestions

When ingested alone, a single magnet is likely to pass without complication through the intestines, unless large in size. However, if multiple magnets are ingested or are co-ingested with another metal object, serious health complications can occur. Magnets can still become attracted to each other when in different loops of intestine. This can cause the intestine to become trapped between the attracted magnets, causing bowel injury, obstruction, ulceration, or full thickness tearing of the intestine. If a full tear, or perforation, occurs, the injury can be life threatening.

Parent Guide

Rare earth magnets often are sold as small balls that are very shiny and can be brightly colored. This may make them appealing to toddlers, causing accidental ingestion as young children often explore their world with their mouth.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has actively recalled many toy products containing rare earth magnets and continues to work on safety standards for magnet sets.  However, as the recent JPGN article* illustrates, all ingestions are not young toddlers and toy magnets. Older children and adolescents can still be at risk for magnet ingestion.  It is important to avoid products with multiple high powered rare earth magnets if you have children within your household of any age. Parents should also be advised of the dangers of using magnets in jewelry or other products for children of any age.

If you suspect your child may have swallowed one or more magnets, it is important to call your physician immediately. These products are almost always visible with aid of a simple X-ray. The pediatric gastroenterology physicians at Riley at IU Health are available 24 hours a day and can help assist your physician or local emergency department in deciding how to manage and follow up your child if an accidental ingestion has occurred.

* Abbas MI, Oliva-Hemker M, Choi J, et al. Magnet Ingestions in Children Presenting to US Emergency Departments, 2002-2011. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. Jul 2013;57(1):18-22.