Foreign Bodies in the Ear, Nose and Airway

A “foreign body” refers to any item or object that has entered the body by accident or on purpose, but doesn’t belong there. An infant or young child may put a foreign object in their ears, nose, or mouth—a potentially dangerous situation because:

  • Objects in the mouth may be swallowed or breathed (aspirated) into the lungs, causing serious breathing difficulty
  • Objects in the ears and nose can make it hard to hear or breathe, and can cause infection

To remove an object that’s been swallowed or aspirated not only requires a procedure to remove it, but general anesthesia may also usually necessary to perform that procedure. Fortunately, the ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists in Cooper’s Division of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery are experts in handling these situations.

Why Choose Cooper to Remove Foreign Bodies from the Ear, Nose and Airway

Cooper’s otolaryngologists—ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists—are uniquely qualified to treat problems affecting this part of the anatomy. And they are available 24/7 to provide expert care in case of an emergency.

Foreign Bodies in the Ear

Foreign bodies in the ear canal can be anything a child can push into his or her ear. Some of the items our ENT specialists commonly find in the ear canal include:

  • Food
  • Insects
  • Toys/game pieces
  • Buttons
  • Pieces of crayon
  • Small batteries

Symptoms: Some objects placed in the ear canal may not cause symptoms. Other objects, such as food and insects, may lead to infection and cause pain in the ear, redness, or drainage. Hearing may be affected if the object is blocking the ear canal.

Treatment: Prompt removal of a foreign object in the ear is the first line of treatment. The techniques for this may include: 

  • Special instruments inserted into the ear canal to grasp the object
  • Magnets, if the object is metal
  • Flushing the ear canal with water
  • A machine with suction to help pull the object out

After removing the object, the ENT specialist will re-examine the ear to determine if there’s been any injury to the ear canal. Antibiotic ear drops may be prescribed to treat any infection.

Foreign Bodies in the Nose

Objects that a child places into the nose are usually soft things. These can include:

  • Tissue
  • Clay
  • Pieces of toys
  • Erasers
  • Food

Sometimes, a foreign body may enter the nose while the child is trying to smell it.

Symptoms: The most common symptom of a foreign body in the nose is nasal drainage. The drainage appears only on the side of the nose with the object and often has a bad odor. In some cases, the child may also have a bloody nose.

Treatment: Treatment of a foreign body in the nose involves prompt removal of the object by a healthcare professional. Sedating your child is sometimes necessary in order to remove the object successfully.

Some of the techniques that your child’s doctor may use to remove an object from the nose include:

  • Suction machines with tubes attached
  • Special instruments inserted into the nose to grasp the object

After removing the object, nose drops or antibiotic ointments may be prescribed to treat any possible infections.

Foreign Bodies in the Throat

A foreign body in the throat can cause choking—making it a medical emergency that needs immediate attention. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, death by choking is a leading cause of death and injury among children under age 4. If your child is choking, call 9-1-1 or bring them to the nearest emergency department immediately.

What usually happens is that a child will put something in their mouth—either while eating or out of curiosity—then inhale, causing the object to “go down the wrong way” and become lodged in the trachea (airway tube) instead of the esophagus (eating tube).

Food often causes airway obstruction in children who don’t yet have a full set of teeth to chew completely, or children who simply don’t chew their food well. Children also don’t have complete mouth and tongue coordination, which may also lead to problems.

Children under age 4 are in the greatest danger of choking on small objects, including:

  • Seeds
  • Toy parts
  • Grapes
  • Hot dogs
  • Pebbles
  • Nuts
  • Buttons
  • Coins

Symptoms: Ingesting a foreign body requires immediate medical attention, so it’s vital to watch young children closely to avoid a choking emergency. The most common symptoms that a child may have a blocked airway:

  • Choking or gagging when the object is first inhaled
  • Coughing at first
  • Wheezing, a whistling sound, usually made when the child breathes out (exhales)

Although these initial symptoms may subside, the foreign body may still be obstructing the airway, causing these symptoms:

  • Stridor [LINK to Stridor page], a high-pitched sound usually heard when the child breathes
  • Cough that gets worse
  • Child is unable to speak
  • Pain in the throat area or chest
  • Hoarse voice
  • Blueness around the lips
  • Not breathing
  • Loss of consciousness

Treatment: Treatment depends on the degree of airway blockage. If the object is completely blocking the airway, your child will be unable to breathe or talk, and his or her lips will become blue. This is a medical emergency and you should seek emergency medical care immediately. Sometimes, surgery is necessary to remove the object.

Children who are still talking and breathing but show other symptoms also need to be evaluated by a healthcare professional right away.

To prevent choking:

  • Cut food into small pieces
  • Never let small children run, play, or lie down while eating
  • Keep coins and small items out of reach of your children
  • Read warning labels on toys
  • Learn first aid for choking

Contact Us

To learn more about the services available in the Division of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery or to schedule an appointment, please call 856.342.3113.