Therapeutic health magnets (search) pose a real danger to children. Intentional or accidental ingestion may require emergency surgery, doctors say.

Children (or adults) who swallow more than one magnet need emergency medical attention, according to radiologist Alan Oestrich, MD, of Cincinnati Children's Hospital in Ohio.

It's never a good idea for kids (or anyone else) to swallow inedible objects, but it happens frequently. According to researchers, most foreign bodies (80 percent) that reach the stomach get past yet 10-20 percent may require direct retrieval by a doctor. Fewer than 2 percent of incidents can cause intestinal blockage or rupture requiring emergency intervention.

That's why Oestrich noted the magnet hazard in a letter to the editor of Radiology in the journal's November edition.

Unlike foreign bodies that can pass through the body with relatively little trouble, magnets can seriously damage the stomach or intestine by attracting each other through the lining of different loops of intestine. Ultimately, the magnets could cause a lack of blood flow in the lining and puncture the lining of the intestine.

That's why anyone who swallows multiple magnets should seek immediate medical attention, which could include surgery, says Oestrich.

The advice applies to all ages.

Babies and toddlers, for instance, have natural curiosity but are too young to know much about safety. However, older children and adults could also be hurt by ingesting magnets.

A 12-year-old autistic boy who had swallowed magnets at a summer camp suffered abdominal pain for days until an X-ray showed the magnets, which were then removed.

Likewise, a 9-year-old girl had an intestinal perforation after swallowing 12 small magnets.

Citing those two cases in his Radiology letter, Oestrich urges all radiologists to look out for magnets on abdominal X-rays.

He also warns against using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on any patients who might have swallowed magnets.

Magnets may be more common in homes and schools than you think. They're used as decorative and organizational items (like those on refrigerator doors), toy components, and as therapeutic health objects. Used properly, magnets should not present a problem, as long as they stay outside the body.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

 

SOURCES: Oestrich, A. Radiology, November 2004; vol 233: p 615. Oestrich, 2004 Year Book of Radiology; pp 155-156. Chung, J. Journal of Pediatric Surgery, 2003; vol 38: pp 1548-1550 (cited in the 2004 Year Book of Radiology; pp 155-156). News release, Radiological Society of North America.