Crazy Common Things People Swallow (That They Shouldn’t)

By: Alia Hoyt
sandwich with toothpick
Be careful with biting down on a sandwich. You don't want to swallow a toothpick! LauriPatterso/Getty Images

You might occasionally read about some person swallowing a cell phone or a pen. That's crazy! But every day, people swallow more mundane things that they shouldn't.

Most "foreign-body ingestion" occurs with children under 6, who put the object in their mouths and swallow them by accident, says Dr. David Farcy, president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM). It's a little different for adults.


"In the adult population, they usually swallow the object by accidentally mixing it with their food," explains Farcy via email.

In 80-90 percent of the cases (adult and children), the foreign objects pass out on their own, Farcy says, but those that don't can quickly turn into potentially dangerous medical concerns.

Some things are more likely than others to wind up in your stomach, simply because they're in close proximity to your food. Here are some of the most common, but dangerous, things adults swallow by accident:


1. Toothpicks

Swallowing a toothpick is not as common as you might think, but it's a serious situation if it happens. "Toothpick ingestion is a medical emergency. Perforations of the intestine are common and the associated mortality is high," wrote a team of researchers who published a report in 2014. (They found 136 cases of toothpick swallowing in 116 publications and concluded ingested toothpicks "are a relatively rare event.") The study found that toothpicks caused gut perforation in 79 percent of the cases and death resulted in 9 percent. In 58 percent of the cases, the patient had to undergo surgery. Toothpicks can cause significant injury to the gut, resulting in sepsis or peritonitis, as well as death.

Since toothpicks often didn't show up during CT scans or ultrasound, "ingested toothpicks should be kept in mind as an important differential diagnosis in patients with acute abdomen," the researchers noted in the study.


2. Fish Bones

A perfectly good filet of fish can quickly be ruined by a fish bone, particularly if it goes undetected until it's been swallowed. Indeed, fish bone foreign body (FFB) is the most commonly experienced esophageal foreign body found in adults in Asia, according to a 2016 study (in the Western world meat is the bigger danger).

Compared with other foreign food bodies, like steak, fish bones are more likely to result in bleeding and/or perforation, which is why they have to come out within 24 hours to avoid serious complications. "[Swallowing fish or chicken bones] can have severe consequences because the left atrium chamber of the heart is located at the back of the heart, right in front of the esophagus, and it can be punctured by these sharp objects," emails Dr. Richard Honaker, chief medical officer of Your Doctors Online.


Of course, a lot of factors can affect how a case of FFB turns out, such as the size, location where it's lodged and the amount of time since it got stuck there. If the bone is greater than 3 centimeters, it'll pose a higher risk than smaller, flimsier bones. If the bones don't come out on their own though, an endoscopy might be required.

3. Metal Brush Bristles

Swallowing one of those metal bristles from the brush used to clean the barbecue grill is fairly common. The journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery reported in 2016 that barbecue brushes had caused around 1,698 emergency room visits between 2002 and 2014,

"Wire brush bristles are an increasingly recognized hazard that can present as a foreign body in the aerodigestive tract," noted a summary published in the journal Case Reports Otolaryngology in 2015. "Due to their small size and tendency to become embedded in surrounding tissue, these small metallic bristles present a unique operative challenge to otolaryngologists."


As a result, doctors typically have a tough time visualizing and removing these bristles through less invasive means, and often have to perform full-out surgery to correct the problem. That's an awful lot of trouble to go through because of a steak or hamburger.

Make sure your cookouts stay happy occasions by replacing grill brushes once a year to avoid any accidental bristle loss (Weber Gas Grills suggests the spring, when grilling season really kicks off).