Think magnets are a safe toy? Think again

  • Dr. Jim Berman

    Dr. Jim Berman

  • Rare earth magnets are super strong and can cause intestinal damage, possibly leading to death, if swallowed, so they should be kept away from young children.

    Rare earth magnets are super strong and can cause intestinal damage, possibly leading to death, if swallowed, so they should be kept away from young children. Stock Photo

Dr. Jim Berman
Advocate Children’s Hospital
Posted1/11/2020 6:00 AM

Over the last several months, four children have been treated at Advocate Children's Hospital after swallowing magnets.

While considerable efforts have been made to get these magnets (known as rare-earth magnets and much stronger than their relative, the refrigerator magnet) off the market, these products have continued to be on some store shelves because they are considered inherently safe. That's so long as they are used as instructed -- for older kids and adults only!


These magnets come in sets -- sometimes up to 250 in a set -- so even if a parent is careful, it's easy for them to make their way around the house and ultimately land in the hands of a younger child who may put them in their mouth. Just think about how Legos travel all over your home.

A child swallowing magnets is scary enough. But what happens after is much worse.

If a parent is aware their child has ingested magnets, the child should be brought to the emergency room and undergo imaging. If the magnets are in the stomach, they can be removed under general anesthesia with endoscopy, or scope. That way they are removed from the body before they have the chance to enter the intestines. When the magnets are beyond the stomach, they become inaccessible to remove with a scope.

Ingested magnets become a serious health risk when they travel to a child's intestines. These magnets can get on one side of the intestinal wall and attract another magnet in a different section of the intestines, pinching together and producing a hole. At this point, intestinal contents enter the cavity through the intestinal perforation or hole(s), and the child can become extremely ill or die. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, vomiting, fever, shivering; clammy, sweaty skin; and increased heart rate.

That's why a child with magnets in the intestines needs to be admitted to the hospital -- even if they have no symptoms. If the magnets are moving through the body, they may exit safely (from the other end). A child can be given stool softeners to aid the magnets in moving along briskly. However, once they stop moving, surgeons get involved and need to remove the magnets with an operation.

If you're wondering what you can do to keep this from happening to your kids, it's simple -- simply don't have toy magnets in your home.

• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Advocate Health. Dr. Jim Berman is a pediatric gastroenterologist at Advocate Children's Hospital. To check out more information, please visit

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