When an 11-year-old from Cyprus inserted two magnets into his nose, one in each nostril, he probably didn’t expect he’d become a medical phenomenon. But after the boy’s parents tried to pry the magnets apart to no avail, they took him and his bleeding nose to the emergency room. The ER, too, was stumped. Eventually, the physicians resigned themselves to surgery. They put the boy under and, with the help of two household magnets, finally pried the magnets loose.
The result of this bizarre episode is a case study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (soberly entitled “Button Magnets In The Nasal Cavity”), and a cautionary tale about not letting kids play with magnets, and preventing them from putting objects in their noses.
Kids put the strangest things in their noses. Pediatricians say barbie shoes are a favorite, as are Legos, beads, seeds, coins, and erasers. “This is how children investigate their environment,” Dr. Jonathan Powell, a pediatrician with Resurrection Medical Group in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune in 2012. “When they are babies, they stick everything in their mouth. As they get a little older, they try other places. It’s very common.”
Magnets are less common foreign bodies but, even then, Pitt saw the writing on the wall. “Any time you get lead from older toys or a magnet inside the body, this can be very bad,” Pitt said. “If you ingest more than one magnet they can connect and when they connect they break down your tissues. Also button batteries, which can be found in the older remotes, watches, or hearing aides — once they get inside you they start conducting so they can cause an electrical current.”
In this case, the study doesn’t mention any electrical currents but does point out that the button magnets in the boy’s nose could have caused serious damage, including tissue death and a magnet-shaped hole right in the septum (the wall between the nostrils that separates the nasal passages). As the authors of the case study put it: “They can compress the mucosa of the nasal septum, leading to necrosis and septal perforation.” Fortunately, the boy was fine. “At follow-up 6 months later, the previously exposed cartilage was covered by healthy nasal mucosa.”
Parents can prevent these scary episodes by watching their youngest children at all times and explaining to older children the very real dangers to putting toys in their noses. But for a child who has suffered a near miss, like this boy from Cyprus, experts say the experience is usually enough to prevent bad behavior. “Kids develop shame as much as adults do,” psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo told the Tribune. “Get their take on what has happened. If it was horrible and they are obviously traumatized, there’s probably no need to give further punishment.”