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What to do when your child has something stuck up their nose

A toddler stands with a tissue to her face, looking cheekily at the camera.
Young children's curiosity can sometimes lead them to experiment with just what can fit up their nose.

Every year, emergency departments around Queensland handle about 220 visits from patients with a foreign object lodged up their nose. Usually they’re small kids and toddlers, whose natural curiosity got the better of them, leading them to experiment with the idea of what fits where.

The objects collected are pretty diverse: game pieces, bits of play dough, pebbles and dirt, wadded up bits of tissue, small batteries, bits of food, or decorative beads. Even the most vigilant parent will struggle to keep their toddler away from every hazard, and when it happens it can cause considerable anxiety.

So what should you do if you find out your child has shoved something up a nostril? There are a few things you can try at home before heading to the emergency department, and a couple of things that should definitely be avoided.

Let’s take a look at everything you need to know if your kid has something up their nose.

How to tell if there’s something up your child’s nose

Children commonly get objects stuck up their nose between the ages of one and three, and they aren’t always aware or willing to let you know that it has occurred. There are a couple of warning signs that something is stuck up the nose including:

  • a constantly running nose, particularly if it’s only from one nostril
  • nose bleeds
  • tenderness or pain around the nose
  • complaints about a weird smell when no-one else can smell anything
  • whistling noises when they breathe through the nose
  • or breathing difficulty.

What to avoid

Don’t panic. This is could be a stressful experience, particularly if it’s the first time it’s happened to your child, but it’s important to keep your cool.Having something stuck in the nose isn’t life threatening unless it’s causing trouble breathing. Usually, the main concern is infection due to the blocked nasal fluids.

Don’t try and remove the object with cotton buds or cotton balls. These can push the object deeper into the nasal passage, which will only make things worse.

Don’t try and remove the object with your fingers. Just like the cotton swabs, your fingers are a blunt instrument when more delicate tool is needed. Don’t risk pushing the object deeper.

Don’t try and suck the object out with a vacuum cleaner. Less likely to push the object deeper in than the previous options, but it’s the wrong tool for this particular job.

Don’t make it a big deal. Your response to this event can go a long way towards avoiding repeat performances. If your toddler knows they can provoke a strong reaction by sticking something in their nose, they’ll be tempted to do so again. More importantly, if they do get something stuck up there again, you don’t want them to be afraid to tell you.

A little girl sits on the couch while her mum helps her blow her nose with a tissue.

What you should do

Step 1: Check what the object is, if possible

Ask your child to tell you what’s stuck up there, if they can. Most objects are not immediately serious, but if it’s a button battery or anything containing toxic chemicals, head straight to the emergency department. These can cause serious damage in a matter of hours if not removed.

If you don’t know what’s stuck up there, assume that it’s an emergency rather than working your way through this list.

Step 2: Calm your child down and get them to breathe through their mouth

Anyone who remembers their last head-cold can tell you our natural response to a blocked nose is to sniff. That’s a bad idea right now. If your child is panicking, particularly if there are tears, there’s also a natural tendency to sniffle that could suck the blockage deeper into the nose.

Calm them down as quickly as possible, while trying to stay calm yourself. Give them a hug and tell them there’s nothing to worry about. Remind your child to breathe through their mouth, rather than their nose, and monitor their breathing if they’re still young enough that they’ll give in to their natural instinct to sniff.

Step 3: Sit them up and lean them forward

It will be tempting to lie the child down, to make it easier to manage the following steps. Try to avoid that – instead sit them up, leaning forward to help with breathing and giving gravity a chance to help all it can.

Step 4: Do a visual check for the blockage

Check your patient’s nose and try to spot the blockage. Don’t get fancy with this – if you can’t see it, don’t go searching for a torch to try and get a better look. You’re just doing a simple visual check of both nostrils.

If you can see the object, you can try the next two options on this list. If not, skip straight to getting medical help from your GP.

Step 5: Block the other nostril and blow

If you know which nostril the object is lodged in, try blocking the other nostril and getting them to blow it out. If they’re a toddler, lead them through the steps, reminding them to breathe in through their mouth before blowing out through their nose. If this doesn’t work, move on to the next step rather than making multiple attempts.

Step 6: Try to gently remove the object with blunt tweezers

The key words here are gentle and blunt. Only try this if you can see the object, it’s sufficiently large, and you stand a reasonable chance of being able to hold onto it with the tweezers. Try to avoid this with smaller objects, where there's a chance of pushing the object further into the nose.

Step 7: See your doctor

If the object hasn’t been dislodged, it’s time to see your GP who will be able to help further. Remember, if your child is having trouble breathing or you think they have a battery or item containing toxic chemicals, you should head to the emergency department straight away.

A toddler sits on a rug in the living room, with a finger up his nose.

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Last updated: 3 August 2022