Magnet Ingestions

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What are Rare Earth/High-Powered Magnets?

Rare earth magnets are made from neodymium and are extremely powerful, enough to attract each other from a significant distance. Many of these high-powered magnets are shaped into 5mm round balls and look like BB’s or ball bearings. They are sold in sets as “adult desk toys” or in older children’s building sets. Toddlers often swallow these small magnetic balls because they are shiny, small, and sometimes brightly colored. Older children use the magnets to mimic jewelry piercings in their mouth and nose, leading to accidental ingestion.

Why is swallowing High-Powered Magnets a problem?

Swallowing high-powered magnets can be a serious health problem. If more than 2 of these items are swallowed, their attractive force can result in the magnets “finding” each other inside the body, sometimes across loops of bowel. Although the tissue of the intestinal tract is tough, it’s no match for these magnets. Once magnetically attached to each other across the bowel walls, the magnets will not break apart. If they stay in place long enough, they can cause bowel ulceration, perforation (forming a hole in the bowel), and severe injury. These events can lead to major surgery, loss of bowel or even, in the worst instances, death.

High-powered magnet ingestions are different than other swallowed foreign bodies because they typically have no immediate symptoms. This often leads to a delay in recognition of the ingestion which delays intervention to remove them. Symptoms of an ingestion like stomachache or vomiting are non-specific and can resemble other common conditions, like acute gastroenteritis (stomach flu). It may take 8-24 hours for these symptoms to occur. Deep pressure ulceration can occur within eight hours. If bowel perforation occurs, it can lead to life-threatening infection. If the magnets block the bowel (an obstruction), then can further damage the bowel. Both perforation and obstruction require surgery to treat.

Illustration of what happens when magnets are ingested

What should I do if my child has swallowed a High-Powered Magnet?

If you know or suspect your child has swallowed a high-powered magnet, you should seek immediate medical attention. An X-ray of your child’s belly will be taken to look for the magnet(s). If there are 2 or more magnets in the stomach, then your child may need an endoscopic procedure to remove them from the stomach. If there are 2 or more magnets in the intestine, then your child may need to be observed in the hospital or potentially have surgery to remove them. Sometimes magnets can be removed from the colon by colonoscopy.

What can I do to prevent High-Powered Magnet ingestions?

  • Keep tiny ultra-powerful magnets out of the reach of infants and toddlers
  • Educate your older children and teens about the risks of swallowing these magnets
  • If your toddler or child swallows these magnets, immediately call your doctor or go to the emergency department

Author: Amethyst Kurbegov, MD
Editor: Christine Waasdorp Hurtado, MD
Date: April 2023

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North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition
The Association of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition Nurses
North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition Foundation
The NASPGHAN Council For Pediatric Nutrition Professionals
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