magnetic beads
Photo - Consumer Reports

Two-year-old Caiden Cooke was suffering from congestion, causing coughing and breathing issues.

Concerned, his parents took him to an urgent care clinic. After tests for flu and strep were negative, a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia was ordered.

The test potentially saved his life.

Caiden loves Sixlets — a candy-coated, chocolate candy. Unknown to his family, Caiden ingested what he thought were his favorite candies during a recent visit to a relative’s house over the holidays.

“It was fortunate they did that X-ray because they discovered something in his belly,” said Josh Cooke, Caiden’s dad. “We were immediately told to go to our local hospital in Tullahoma. They saw what looked like a beaded bracelet or small connected balls.
“I asked if there was any way he could pass it. But after they spoke with the doctors at Vanderbilt and we talked to our pediatrician, it was obvious we needed to get to Nashville.”

Once Caiden was examined, the team at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt discovered 23 magnetic beads, which had lodged in his stomach and intestines.

“I wanted to avoid surgery, but once we learned that these were magnets and there was potential for severe injury, we were on board,” said Cooke. “There was a definite sense of urgency in getting these out. They had already clamped together and were causing pain and damage to the tissue.”

It’s been more than a decade since the American Academy of Pediatrics advocated for more safety standards for children’s products and toys that contain magnets. A recent surge in the number of injuries associated with children and adolescents swallowing the BB-sized balls is alarming pediatricians nationwide.

Marketed as desk toys for adults, the magnets are sold in sets of 100 or more, making it difficult for parents to recognize if a few magnets are missing. Although these products are labeled and designed for adults, they can easily find their way into the hands and mouths of children.

Within in a 10-day span, surgeons at Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt had three separate surgical cases.

“We typically see at least one case each month,” said Harold Lovvorn III, MD, FACS, FAAP, associate professor of Pediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital. “But we seem to be encountering more of these cases in the last few years as new products come onto the market.

“When magnetic beads are ingested, they can become attached and will not separate spontaneously. If this occurs, a few things can happen: the connection creates a tiny perforation of the intestine and/or a bowel obstruction since the foreign object cannot pass through the GI tract if attached across two different segments of the bowel. The combined perforation and obstruction can make a child quite sick.”

Lovvorn suggests parents immediately notify their primary care physician for next-step direction, which will more than likely include a trip to the nearest Emergency Room for diagnostic testing to determine if the magnetic beads are stationary or moving.

“We were lucky,” said Cooke. “We discovered them on accident. If it had been much longer, it certainly could have been a much more serious situation.

“I feel like we owe it to others to let them know about the possible dangers.”

Caiden was released three days after laparoscopic surgery to remove the magnets. He is recovering at home.

“If these magnets are swallowed or inhaled, patients should seek immediate medical attention,” said Lovvorn. “We have heard of adolescents using them as fake piercings. These magnets are intended for amusement or stress relief in adults and have also been used as an educational tool for people with learning disabilities.

“The Consumer Product Safety Commission is meeting with the manufacturers about how to make these magnets safer if ingested and less appealing to young children.”

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