What The Health?! Baby undergoes surgery after choking on Christmas confetti

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Doctors are once again reminding parents that some holiday decor can be dangerous for young kids after a nine-month-old girl choked on a plastic confetti star. 

In fact, the tiny piece of plastic lodged in the infant’s throat went undetected for 11 days before doctors eventually noticed it on a scan and performed surgery to remove it. 

The family first sought medical attention following a serious choking episode where blood was coming out of the baby’s mouth, according to an article in the Medical Journal of Australia. Doctors didn’t detect any foreign bodies in her throat and sent her home, thinking she had choked on her own saliva. 

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Two days later, the family returned to the emergency department. By then, the little girl had developed a fever, cough, and rapid breathing. She was diagnosed with bronchiolitis and received inpatient treatment for three days.

The girl went back home, but six days later, returned to hospital with the same symptoms. At that point, doctors scanned her neck.

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The tests finally showed what was going on: An abscess was pressing on her airways, and there was a tiny five-pointed star stuck in her throat.

She had surgery to drain the abscess and remove the decoration. She made a full recovery. 

The case serves as a reminder to parents to be extra careful with any and all kinds of holiday decorations. 

“Despite their flexible nature, the sharp points of confetti stars appear to increase the risk of lodgement in the upper aerodigestive tract, and their reflective surfaces attract the interests of young children with a propensity to place things in their mouths,” wrote doctors Paul Heyworth and Ryan Shulman in their article titled “A Christmas message: Be careful of the confetti stars.” “While uncommon, the potential for similar cases to present themselves over these Christmas holidays exists.”

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They said more doctors and parents should be made aware of this possibility and that the stars should carry warnings on the packaging.

Dr. Mike Dickinson, Horizon Health Network chief of paediatrics and lecturer at Dalhousie University, says that although this kind of outcome is highly unusual, the Christmas season can present certain challenges and risks for toddlers. 

“Homes can be perfectly childproofed for 11.5 months of the year, then that changes around Christmas time with a tree in the corner and ornaments on the tree, a bowl of peanuts on coffee table, and a Lego set on the floor with bits and pieces,” Dickinson says. “Parents need to be cognizant that whatever their normal home environment is, it can sometimes change dramatically over the holidays, and for small children that can present choking hazards.”

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“This case is a reminder that even really tiny things can potentially pose a problem. It is the season of glitter, sparkles, and confetti, and for very small kids those are potential issues,” he adds. 

Dr. Ran Goldman, professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia and at the B.C. Children's Hospital, says that the most common items kids inhale are small toys and pieces of food. 

“Symptoms of foreign body aspiration into the airways in children include cough, wheeze—a whistle sound while breathing—or stridor, a high-pitched sound, sometimes sounding like a barking dog or seal,” Goldman says. “At times, children will have decreased or abnormal breathing sounds and unequal breathing on both sides of the chest.”

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“The problems parents and healthcare providers face is that these symptoms are very common with many viral illnesses in children,” he says. “This is why a clear history from parents, identifying a specific incident when a toddler put a little toy in their mouth, or if they choked when feeding, is always important.”

The most definitive test for foreign body aspiration in the airways is called bronchoscopy, Goldman explains. Under anesthesia, an expert in pulmonary diseases will pass a camera into the airways, trying to visualize if a foreign body can be seen. 

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“This type of procedure carries risks for the child, including for their breathing, as well as from the anesthesia,” Goldman says. “This is why other tests like an X-ray or visualizing with a fibre optic camera is preferred unless symptoms continue and deteriorate.”

When it comes to seeking medical care, Dickinson says parents should trust their gut feeling. 

“I’m a big believer in parental instincts,” he says. “If a parent has a feeling something is not right with their child, that is something they should listen to. For symptoms that don’t get better or if they’re getting worse in any way, to have that reassessed makes perfect sense.”

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