According to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics and conducted by Nationwide Children's Hospital, a whopping 34 children a day are admitted to hospital emergency rooms because they've choked on food, which equates to over 12,000 E.R. visits a year by kids ages birth to 14 years, although the actual number of children who choke on food is even greater considering that most kids who choke don't end up in the emergency room.
"As dramatic as this study is, this is clearly an underestimate," says Dr. Gary Smith, the study's senior author and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Choking is a common cause of injury and death in young children, primarily because their small airways are easily obstructed. For babies, mastering the ability to chew and swallow food takes time. Moreover, infants may not be able to cough forcefully enough to dislodge an airway obstruction; thus, as babies start exploring their environments, they commonly put objects in their mouths that can easily lead to infant choking.
The age group most likely to choke are those between the ages of birth to 4, with hard candy being the culprit for 15 percent of choking episodes. Other kinds of candy and gum accounted for 13 percent of choking episodes, followed by meat (not including hot dogs) and bones.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping foods including hot dogs, nuts, chunks of meat or cheese, whole grapes and hard candy away from kids younger than 4. Any food given to babies and young children should be chopped into pieces no larger than half an inch.
In their study, they suggest boosting public awareness of choking hazards and attaching warning labels to food with a high choke factor. Slapping a caution on a package of Oscar Mayers may sound a bit odd, but toy manufacturers routinely label toys that have potentially dangerous parts.
In 1994, Congress passed legislation prohibiting manufacturers from marketing toys with small balls, marbles or balloons to children under 3; if such items are part of toys for older kids, the product must also carry a warning label. "All these protections have existed for years for toys, but none of this exists for food," says Smith. "And children choke more often on food than on toys. If we take everything we've learned over the past two decades on protecting children from choking on toys and apply it to food, we will save lives and prevent injuries."
In the meantime, you can take simple steps to prevent infant choking, such as the following from Mayo Clinic:
- Properly time the introduction of solid foods. Introducing your baby to solid foods before he or she has the motor skills to swallow them can lead to infant choking. Wait until your baby is at least 4 months old to introduce pureed solid foods.
- Don't offer high-risk foods. Don't give babies or young children hot dogs, chunks of meat or cheese, grapes, raw vegetables or fruit chunks, unless they're cut up into small pieces. Don't give babies or young children hard foods, such as seeds, nuts, popcorn and hard candy that can't be changed to make them safe options. Other high-risk foods include peanut butter, marshmallows and chewing gum.
- Supervise mealtime. As your child gets older, don't allow him or her to play, walk or run while eating. Remind your child to chew and swallow his or her food before talking. Don't allow your child to throw food in the air and catch it in his or her mouth or stuff large amounts of food in his or her mouth.
- Carefully evaluate your child's toys. Don't allow your baby or toddler to play with latex balloons -- which pose a major hazard when uninflated and broken -- small balls, marbles, toys that contain small parts, or toys meant for older children. Look for age guidelines when buying toys for your child. Also, regularly examine toys to make sure they're in good condition.
- Keep hazardous objects out of reach. Common household items that might pose a choking hazard include button batteries, coins, and pen or marker caps.
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