So You've Swallowed Your Dentures

Inadvertent ingestion of everyday objects happens much more often than you'd think. 3,500 Americans swallow batteries every year.

F16.large615.jpg
"On being questioned, the patient recalled having accidentally swallowed her dentures recently." [©RadioGraphics 2011]

Fish bones, followed by other types of bones, followed by dentures, are what most often end up in adults' digestive tracts, according to a new review, from Düsseldorf University Hospital, of adults accidentally swallowing things. (For more on this last problem, see the engaging case study entitled, "Where Are My Teeth?")

Small children, as everyone knows, are constantly putting things in their mouths that don't belong there, and it's not uncommon for them to end up swallowing them. That's why we keep small toys, coins, and other things that look like candy but aren't away from people under the age of six. But even grown-ups, upon confronting a non-childproofed world, are at risk of accidentally swallowing foreign objects. Their stories make for a fascinating and instructive tour of the medical literature.

Eighty percent of the time, mistakenly ingested objects make their way naturally out of the body -- usually within four to six days, although in rare cases can take up to a month (the myth that chewing gum hangs around for seven years is, it appears, just that). The other 20 percent gets "hung up" in the esophagus or intestines and may require surgical or endoscopic intervention to remove. 

peninset.jpgThe pen remained friendly after 25 years in a woman's stomach. [©British Medical Journal 2011]

In general, can take two lessons away from stories like those of the woman who lived 25 years with a felt-tip pen lodged in her abdomen, which doctors initially refused to believe she'd swallowed. The first, as the author responsible for her case study concluded: "Occasionally it may be worth believing the patient's account however unlikely it may be." The second: Like the pen, which, after being removed, was still able to write, these things sometimes have a way of turning out okay.

After conducting a thorough review of the literature, researchers advise that how worried you should be depends on four main characteristics of the swallowed object in question:

How big it is. In "Journey of a Swallowed Toothbrush to the Colon," for example, we hear the story of a foreign object that tried its hardest to show itself out but ended up lodged in the patient's digestive system.

F14.largeinset.jpgAn ingested battery, easily identified. [©RadioGraphics 2011]

How sharp it is. A swallowed object that's otherwise small enough to be easily passable can be rendered far more dangerous if it has rough or pointy edges, as in the case of a 45-year old woman whose liver was basically torn apart by a toothpick. 

If the object in question is both big and sharp, as with the young lady who accidentally swallowed a knife , it goes without saying that emergency care is going to be required. Immediate danger aside, as James Hamblin wrote of this case, a desensitized gag reflex can be indicative of an eating disorder (and while this was a particularly bizarre example, toothbrushes are known to be inadvertently swallowed by patients with bulimia). Similarly, having a "voracious appetite" can cause problems: Case studies demonstrate how fish and chicken bones tend to be swallowed by people who overeat at a rapid pace.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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