Pediatric Airway Foreign Body Clinical Presentation

Updated: Sep 06, 2018
  • Author: Emily Concepcion, DO; Chief Editor: Girish D Sharma, MD, FCCP, FAAP  more...
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Often, the child presents after a sudden episode of coughing or choking while eating with subsequent wheezing, coughing, or stridor. However, in numerous cases, the choking episode is not witnessed, and, in many cases, the choking episode is not recalled at the time the history is taken.

The most tragic cases occur when acute aspiration causes total or near-total occlusion of the airway, resulting in death or hypoxic brain damage.

The more difficult cases are those in which aspiration is not witnessed or is unrecognized and, therefore, is unsuspected.

In these situations, the child may present with persistent or recurrent cough, wheezing, persistent or recurrent pneumonia, lung abscess, focal bronchiectasis, or hemoptysis.

If the material is in the subglottic space, symptoms may include stridor, recurrent or persistent croup, and voice changes.

In one series, as many as one third of parents were unaware of the aspiration or remembered an event that occurred more than a week before the presentation. [5] In as many as 25% of cases, aspiration occurred more than one month before presentation. Consequently, a high index of suspicion in addition to the history may be necessary to reach the diagnosis. In another series of 280 foreign body aspirations, 47% were detected more than 24 hours after the aspiration. [5] However, 99% had signs or symptoms or abnormal plain radiographs before the bronchoscopy.

One of the author's cases involved a 9-year-old boy with persistent pneumonia and lung abscess. Upon bronchoscopy, a plastic toy was visualized in his left lower lobe bronchus. Neither he nor his family could recognize the toy and had no idea how long it had been since it might have been aspirated.



See the list below:

  • Major findings include new abnormal airway sounds, such as wheezing, stridor, or decreased breath sounds. These sounds are often, but not always, unilateral.

  • Sounds are inspiratory if the material is in the extrathoracic trachea. If the lesion is in the intrathoracic trachea, noises are symmetric but sound more prominent in the central airways. These sounds are a coarse wheeze (sometimes referred to as expiratory stridor) heard with the same intensity all over the chest.

  • Once the foreign body passes the carina, the breath sounds are usually asymmetric. However, remember that the young chest transmits sounds very well, and the stethoscope head is often bigger than the lobes. A lack of asymmetry should not dissuade the observer from considering the diagnosis.

  • Similarly, a lack of findings upon physical examination does not preclude the possibility of an airway foreign body.