Magnets, like blocks, Legos and puzzles, offer all kinds of fun to kids. But, obviously, the magnets work a little better when they remain outside of children's bodies.
Not all kids are getting that message. A recent study found that the number of cases of swallowed magnets has been increasing.
In fact, from 2002 to 2011, the number of cases involving a child with a magnet in his or her body increased by six times.
Besides swallowing the magnets, the second most common way kids ended up with magnets in them was by putting it up their noses.
This study, led by Jonathan Silverman, MD, of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, looked at how common it was for children to swallow magnets or otherwise get them in their bodies.
The researchers gathered data from 2002 through 2011 in the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System related to patients under the age of 21 having a magnet in their body.
They included cases with all possible places for the magnet to be, including the digestive tract, respiratory tract, nasal cavity, ear canal or genital area.
They found a total of 893 cases of a magnet being found in a child's body. However, the system data do not include all children in the US.
Therefore, the researchers estimated that this translates to about 22,581 cases of magnets in kids' bodies in the US over a ten-year period.
The great majority of these — a total of 74 percent — were magnets that children swallowed. Another 21 percent were magnets in kids' noses.
The average age of children who had swallowed magnets was 5 years old, and the average age for kids with a magnet in their noses was 10 years old.
The commonness of this problem appears to be increasing. From 2002 to 2003, there was about one child for every 200,000 children who had a magnet in their body.
But by the years 2010 to 2011, about six children for every 200,000 were being seen for having swallowed, inhaled or otherwise taken a magnet into their body.
The majority of the magnets that had been swallowed, about 73 percent of the total, occurred in the year 2007 or later.
About 91 percent of all the cases involving swallowing more than one magnet occurred in 2007 or later.
Only a small percentage of the children who swallowed a single magnet (2 percent of the total) were admitted to the hospital.
However, about 16 percent of the kids who swallowed more than one magnet were admitted to the hospital.
"Magnet-related injuries are an increasing public health problem for young children, as well for older children who may use magnets for play or to imitate piercing," the authors wrote. "Education and improved magnet safety standards may decrease the risk small magnets pose to children."
Chris Galloway, MD, a dailyRx expert who specializes in emergency medicine, said swallowed magnets can lead to complications.
"Magnets can be quite a curious thing for kids to play with — that is until they end up in the wrong location," Dr. Galloway said.
"Magnets are getting much smaller and more powerful, making them easier to swallow, inhale and place in passages such as the nose and ears," he said. "It can be hard enough to remove from these locations without needing to sedate children, but we are also seeing an increased incidence of intestinal perforations from these small powerful magnets."
The problem can become compounded if there is more than one swallowed magnetic object, he said.
"If more than one magnet is swallowed, these can be attracted to each other while in different segments of the intestine," Dr. Galloway said.
"The attraction can be strong enough that the intestinal wall between the magnets gets compressed and breaks down, leading to perforation and serious consequences," he said. "No longer can we 'wait for it to pass;' this can lead to surgery for urgent removal."
This study was published August 8 in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. The research was funded by the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center at the University of Washington. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.